Though New York may lay claim as the cradle of pizza in America, many people would say that New Haven has the best. Certainly, there are a higher ratio of good to bad pizzerias in the area than there are almost anywhere else in the world. The question is, who's got the best?
Ed's money is on Sally's. I grew up on Pepe's and Modern, and we're both huge fans of the clam pies at Zuppardi's. None of us have ever tried to eat'em all in a single day.
Well, the good folks at Ford lent us our very own SeriousEats Tasting-mobile so we could find out. Serious Eats National Editor Erin Zimmer, Serious Eats Puppy-At-Large Hambone, and I decided to make a pilgrimage we've been meaning to make for years: a trip to New Haven to eat all four of our favorite pizzas in a single day. We punched in Zuppardi's on the sci-fi nav system and hit the road.
Pizzeria #1: Zuppardi's Apizza
Oven Type: Gas-fired deck oven
Must Order: Fresh-shucked clam pie
Zuppardi's Apizza in West Haven hasn't been on our radar for as long as the big boys in New Haven, but it's quickly found a comfortable spot in our bellies. Their regular pies are good. Real good, as in stop-mid-bite-to-send-a-text-message-to-your-friends good. It's in their dough. Crisp, slightly chewy, with the complex wheatiness of the best bread, it's thicker than your typical Connecticut apizza, but in this case, more crust ain't a bad thing.
Their sausage is made in house—juicy, plump, fatty nuggets that ooze sweet fennel-scented juices into the cheese as they cook. It's a thing of beauty.
But the real draw here, the thing that Zuppardi's is well on its way to becoming famous for is its peerless clam pie. Everyone in New Haven does clam pies topped with fresh cherrystones, garlic, red pepper, and olive oil, but Zuppardi's is the only one we know of that shucks its clams fresh to order.
Who can top that?
Pizzeria #2: Modern Apizza
Oven Type: Oil-fired
Must Order: Mozzarella and sausage pie
Growing up, Modern was the pizzeria we went to whenever the line at Pepe's was too long. I feel like this is a common story for New Haven tourists and locals alike.
But why is Modern the underdog in the New Haven apizza scene? It's been around since 1934 (how modern is that?), but has never gained the same notoriety to out-of-towners as the storied Frank Pepe or Sally's have. Perhaps it's because it's out of the way on State street instead of on the Wooster street pizza strip. Maybe it's the more formal, more sterile, less raucous atmosphere inside.
After tasting their incredible deeply charred pies again, I can only imagine it's one of these reasons, because it certainly can't be faulted for its tasty oil-fired oven pies.
Ok, so they go heavier on cheese than the other joints, but the crust and fresh tomato sauce are tasty enough that it doesn't seem out of balance. Their sausage is made by Lamberti, one of the great local sausage makers, and while it's not quite as juicy or tasty as the house-made sausage at Zuppardi's, the extreme heat of its oven adds plenty of smoky flavor on its own.
Contender #3: Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
Oven Type: Coal
Must Order: Sausage and pepperoni pie
To borrow some phrase-age from Slice-man Adam Kuban, this is the pizza that has haunted my dreams since I was a little kid.
Actually, let me rephrase that. The memory of this pizza, as it was when I was a kid, haunts my dreams. Whether the real-life pizza lives up to it now, or indeed has ever lived up to it is questionable.
To be honest, up until about a year ago, I hadn't been back to Pepe's in well over a decade and a half. It wasn't just the massive lines that turned me away (is it just me, or were the lines far shorter in the '80s?), though those did help, but I think subconsciously, I didn't want to be disappointed.
My memory of the awesomeness of the sausage and bacon pie was simply too good. The crisp, bubbly crust, the gooey, greasy cheese mingling with fat from the Lamberti's sausage, the huge charred bubbles that pop up through the surface like miniature volcanic islands—not to mention the clam pie (the first clam pie I ever ate), or the pitcher of Foxon Park birch beer to wash it down—I just didn't want to risk discovering that perhaps it wasn't really as good in real life as I remember it being.
Did I need to worry?
I went through a similar crisis when I revisited another childhood favorite, Sacco Pizza on Ninth Ave in New York, and to be honest, there's no way in hell that any pizza in the world could ever live up to my memory.
What in this real world can compete with perfection? That said, it's still a f*&king phenomenal pie. Charred and smoky from the coal oven, charming with its haphazard cutting job giving you slices that range from polygonal tip-less plate-sized pieces to diminutive three-bite triangles.
Sure, Pepe's has expanded to a few other locations these days, and there are those who say that quality has gone down. Personally, I don't see it. I'm still a proud fan.
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
Pizzeria #4: Sally's
When we finally made our way to the last location, we were met with disaster. We picked the two week period during which the entire Consiglio family—keepers of the flame at Sally's—were on their yearly vacation.
It's a shame, because according to Ed, Sally's is the best of the bunch.
Here's what he has to say about it in his book, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven:
Pizza lovers are extremely thankful that Sal Consiglio utilized his considerable gifts in making perfect pies, with a slightly chewy, charred crust and just enough sauce and cheese for balance. Sally Consiglio perfected his pizza-making craft as a teenager in his uncle Frank Pepe's pizzeria (Sally's mother was Frank Pepe's sister Filamena). Flo, who met Sally when they were in grammar school, said that he was so small when he started making pizza that he had to stand on a box to knead the dough.
Sally opened his eponymous pizzeria in 1938, when he was 18. Flo insists that even though her husband opened a couple of hundred yards from his uncle's pizzeria, there was never any bad blood between the two.
Now Sally's two sons, Richard and Robert, are the pizzaioli, and their pies are every bit as good as their dad's. What's truly remarkable is that in the seven decades Sally's has been in business, only three people, Sally, Richard, and Robert Consiglio, have ever made a pizza there. Talk about an owner-occupied pizzeria.
Sally's tomato pie, made with the aforementioned fresh herbs, California canned tomatoes, and freshly grated pecorino Romano, is a revelation. It's a model of pizza flavor and texture balance.
What does this mean? Well, for one thing, our taste test was inconclusive (not that we would've been able to pick our favorite out of the three we tasted anyway). But more importantly, it means we're just going to have to come back, and that's an assignment we'll gladly take.