The running joke among certain food writers is that I’ve forsaken my Italian-American heritage to sup on various and sundry heavily spiced offal platters at basement hawker centers in Queens. To some extent that’s true, but I always welcome the chance to explore my roots, which is why I was particularly psyched to go on a New Haven pizza expedition with three fellow food writers—Jeff Orlick, Dave Cook, and Rich Sanders—last month.
My last journey to the cradle of New England pizza was 10 years ago with Adam Kuban, founder of the pizza blog Slice now turned pizzaiolo in his own right. It was high time for a revisit. We rendezvoused at 9:15 a.m. in Long Island City and piled into Jeff’s car to make the trip. There had been talk of visiting Louis Lunch and even Connecticut lobster rolls, but we all decided that at least in this case, discretion was the better of gluttony. The day’s mission was to be solely devoted to pizza.
When we arrived at our first stop, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, at around 11:30 a.m. Wooster Street was empty and we breezed inside. “We have to get bacon,” Rich, a Yale alum, advised. After some discussion our pizza crawl crew settled on a large pie half bacon, and half bacon clams sans tomato sauce ($25.75) And at Rich’s sage advice, plenty of local favorite Foxon Park Birch Beer.
As you can see from the above photo that Dave snapped we apparently also ordered a second pie, which is lost to memory. Pepe’s crust is wonderfully chewy with a slight saltiness and char from the brick oven. It remains as magnificent as it was 10 years ago. The bacon was not my favorite, but the combination of the bacon and garlicky clams was pretty good.
On Tuesday’s Sally’s Apizza is closed, which was just fine by me. Ten years ago me and the Kuban crew, had good pizza, but abysmal service. Our second stop for the 2014 crawl would be Modern Apizza. During my first visit to the land of apizza, I thought Modern Apizza, was, well modern as in like opened in the 90s. Turns out it’s been around since 1934. (Just in case you’re wondering in Connecticut everybody calls it apizza.)
Rich had been raving about the sausage at Modern, so we ordered up a large, half sausage, half cherry pepper ($17). It’s a good thing we had plenty of Foxon Park on hand because those cherry peppers were good and spicy.
The sausage was indeed rave-worthy, sweet chunks with a nice touch of fennel. Modern’s crust has a bit less chew to it than Pepe’s, but still had good flavor. In some parts it was almost cracker like, others slightly soggy. The edge had a nice char and I was glad to snag a slice where the pie had bubbled up.
Our next stop was Da Legna, a relative newbie on the apizza scene, having opened in 2012. Expectations were high for the wood-fired pizza. Da Legna offers traditional pizza as well as more than a dozen artisanal pizzas. Our crew got a plain pie and a funghi with wild mushrooms, ricotta, burrata, truffle oil, and tarragon. As we were eating one of us paused. “This is exactly what you would expect a pie from a place like this to taste like.”
Had Da Legna’s been the first apizza we had eaten on that drizzly fall Tuesday we probably would have gamely devoured it and pronounced it just fine. After three super O.G. New Haven pies though, it was lackluster. So we took home about half of each pie and moved on to our next, Zuppardi’s Apizza in West Haven.
We’d been told that the thing to get at Zuppardi’s was the clam pie. Scanning the menu revealed there were two types, baby clam and fresh clam. “Whenever anybody talks about the clam pie here, they mean the freshly shucked,” the counter guy responded when asked why the fresh clam pie was $10 more. “Get it without cheese, so that the juices of the clams soak into the crust.”
About 15 minutes later the 12-slice pie came to the table ringed with lemon wedges and fragrant with clams, garlic, and oregano. The crust was crackling and thin. The whole combination—tender clams, and the crisp just slightly charred dough topped with the equivalent of white clam sauce—was stupendously good. So good that even though it was our sixth pie we devoured all of it save for two slices. And to wash it down, Foxon Park Iron Brew.
I don’t think I can wait another ten years for my next trip to the magical land of apizza. I need to reconnect with my roots more often, besides I still haven’t been to Louis Lunch.
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, 157 Wooster St. , New Haven, Connecticut 203-865-5762
Modern Apizza, 874 State St., New Haven, Connecticut, 203-776-5306
Da Legna, 858 State St., New Haven, Connecticut, 203-495-9999
Zuppardi’s Apizza, 179 Union Ave. , West Haven, Connecticut, 203-934-1949
As we were eating one of us paused. “This is exactly what you would expect a pie from a place like this to taste like.”
What’s that mean? Is that good or bad? I’ve heard good things about Da Legna. Would like to know if you thought it delivered.
Adam, as the one who this quote can be attributed to, I would definitely not recommend it for someone coming from NYC. The place was nice and the staff were also nice, so I don’t want to disparage it at all, however it was absolutely nothing to travel for (for someone coming from NYC). The emphasis is more on the toppings than the crust. The place is very well done, great branding, they sell t-shirts that are totally not annoying but cool – and the pizza tastes like it was in a nice place that’s new, concentrating on the plethora of toppings. They have all the hit points, like wood burning oven, quality stuff, but it just doesn’t have that flavor rush as the others do. It’s also not in the same style at all, it’s a typical middle-american city pizza that is great for them but not a regional thing. Yeah, I guess my biggest issue is that it’s not definitively New Haven so there’s no reason for a tourist to come here.
Then again, that’s just my opinion.
For me, Modern tasted the best, with Peppe’s 2nd but kinda wins for having the best environment. Zuppardis was great, the layout felt like the pizzerias I grew up with, but I thought the pizza was 3rd place in a Hall of Fame ballot. Am looking forward to going back for Sally’s and Bar.
I thought it was you who said that. thanks for chiming in in on this. I can’t wait to go back again!
Thanks for the clarification, Jeff! I honestly couldn’t tell if that statement meant good or bad. I interpreted it both ways and weighed them and then asked. Your explanation makes sense. I really need to get up to New Haven again soon. Haven’t been in a few years. I remember that trip 10 years ago fondly — and not so fondly. Fun times with fun people, but that visit to Sally’s remains THE WORST pizza experience I’ve ever had. I’d really like to get back to Modern. I think they have something down pat there. They’re not celebrated in the same way Sally’s or Pepe’s are, but they’re a frickin’ machine of pizza. So many people in and out — and a HUGE take-out business out the back door. I need to study them… hehe.
AK–Um yes what Jeff said, just simply not in the same league as the other players.
Modern has always been my fave. Great apizza, good environs, friendly service.
“In some parts it was almost cracker like,others slightly soggy” ??? For anyone who understands dough, this is subpar by definition. Is there structure? Or will the pizza toppings including cheese slip off if you were to hold it by its crust? They can’t satisfy their demand so every pizza is cooked less than should be, oven floor can’t stay evenly hot enough, so if that’s what you define a pizza machine then yes. Modern is extremely successful and definitely deserves their praise, but that doesn’t deem them god. I think it was safe to knock the newcomer and praise the franchised institutions, as a food blogger you get points for being cautious. AK, I would decide for yourself and come to your own conclusions, based on your photos on ig you know great pie.