Saturday, June 28, 2008

New Haven Pizza: Pepe's and Sally's

Over this past weekend, I visited New Haven, Connecticut, about a two hour train ride from New York, on a mission to eat two pizzas. Among afficionados, "New Haven-style pizza" is an accepted part of the lexicon that describes the pizza universe, and there are two old and widely-known purveyors of New Haven-style pizza separated by a little more than one block on Wooster Street, tucked away in a small neighborhood between the railroad tracks and interstate highways just southeast of the Yale University campus. Frank Pepe's, at 157 Wooster Street, is the original New Haven pizza place, opened in 1925, and still owned and operated by Frank's family. About the same time that Pepe's expanded its operation by buying the building next door to its original location, Sally's Apizza was opened by Sal Consiglio at 237 Wooster Street in 1938, and it too is still owned and operated by Sal's family.

The pizza oven at Pepe's. Below you can see the top of
the coal-burning chamber that fires the oven.

Around 1pm, I met a couple of friends who live in Connecticut, and we headed for Pepe's, which is open all afternoon (Sally's doesn't open until 5pm). Although it was about 2:30pm before we got there, and we were visiting on a Sunday afternoon at a time of year when most of the Yale students are gone, there was quite a line formed outside on the sidewalk waiting to get in. While we were waiting, a pleasantly rotund man came out of the restaurant wearing a Frank Pepe's white T-shirt and introduced himself to everyone in line as Steve, the manager of the restaurant. He thanked everyone for coming and said he hoped that upon trying one of his pizzas we would feel like it was worth standing in line for. One of the things both Pepe's and New Haven are famous for is clam pizzas, and Steve told us that although some clam beds had been closed because of bacteria found in the water, he had practically cornered the market in fresh local clams for this weekend and the clam pizzas were very good that day.

Pepe's kitchen. Note the very long handled
pizza peels, for moving pizzas around the oven which goes
about five or six pizzas deep behind the opening.

When we got inside, we ordered two pizzas: one with just sauce and cheese, and one with clams on half and sausage on the other. One of the peculiarities of New Haven pizza is that the sauce and cheese pizza is not considered a "plain" pizza -- a plain pizza in these parts does not have any cheese, but only a crust, sauce, and a few herbs on top. If you want mozzarella cheese, you order a "mozz" pizza, with "mozz" is pronounced like "mootz" where the "oo" is like "book" or "football." So the waiter repeated our order: "One medium mootz, one small mootz half clam half sausage." The pizza arrived, and it was everything I wanted it to be: a thin crust, maybe only an eighth of an inch thick, that was slightly charred and crispy on the bottom, but still soft enough to have some chewiness and taste; a fresh-tasting tomato sauce that was only lightly flavored with herbs; and a solid covering of cheese cooked until it was just beginning to brown and reaching to within a quarter inch of the edge all around. My friend who ordered the clam pizza remarked on how good it was and that the clams were very fresh. Pepe's pizzas didn't strike me as unusual in any particular way, except for maybe tasting a bit salty (but not unpleasantly so) from what I think was a little salt applied to the bottom of the crust. They were simply very good pizzas that had good flavor in the crust, sauce, and cheese, and I would eat them all the time if I had them nearby.

The line ahead of us at Sally's before opening.

Later that day, we got in the pre-opening line at Sally's just after 5pm, the scheduled opening time, although they didn't open until almost twenty minutes after the hour. If you're in line before a place opens, and you don't make it into the first seating, you're probably facing a pretty long wait until the next round of tables starts to open up. That's exactly what happened to us, and I am grateful to my friends for sticking it out and staying there to try yet more pizza with me, even though they'd already gotten enough mootz for one day. We finally made it into the restaurant around 6:30pm, and ordered just one plain (well, not plain, but mootz) pizza.

Our pizza at Sally's, before we finished it off.

As expected, a Sally's pizza is in the same general style as a Pepe's pizza: a thin crust charred on the bottom and soft on top, a flavorful tomato sauce, and a solid covering of mozzarella cheese. But the two pizzas have a different character, and having both within a few hours of each other really brought out the differences in them for me. A Sally's pizza is like a Pepe's pizza that has been pushed a bit further to some of its limits. First and most obviously, the Sally's pizza is cooked more than a Pepe's pizza. The top edge of the crust at Sally's was so charred in most places that we didn't eat it, and the cheese was more browned, with dark spots peppering the entire top of the pie every half inch or so. As it happens, I'm a big fan of browned pizza cheese, so I like this a lot. The sauce was flavored with a heavier hand, so that where the Pepe's sauce tasted mostly of fresh tomatoes, the Sally's sauce felt more substantial with more of an herb flavor or maybe just a cooked and concentrated flavor. Although I would regularly go to either place if it were convenient, I clearly preferred the Sally's pizza, which is a bit surprising since the thing I most highly value in a pizza is the tomato flavor of the sauce and Sally's seasoned their sauce a little more. I guess the browned cheese and the overall interesting toasty flavor of the whole thing was enough to carry the day.

In addition to the pizzas having slightly different flavor profiles, the restaurants themselves feel different from each other. Pepe's feels a little touristy. They understand that people who study pizza and pizza history (and with the internet nowadays, we can all study the history of just about anything that strikes our fancy) come from all over the country to try their pizza, and they have a "get 'em in and get 'em out" approach to the business in some ways. It is the only restaurant I've ever been in where when you finally get to the front of the line for a table, the host simply says to you something like, "Table 25," and you go into the restaurant and the tables are all clearly numbered and you seat yourself at your assigned table. The service was efficient but unremarkable, and we left only about an hour after we had first gotten in the line outside.

The scene inside Sally's Apizza.

Sally's, on the other hand, felt a lot more like a neighborhood hang out for New Haven locals. There were very few servers, and they were not in any hurry to turn the tables over and get people in and out of the place. Where Pepe's had Steve the manager, hired to run the restaurant, many of the guests at Sally's were seated by Flo, Sal's widow who still owns the business. Most tables we saw were getting an outrageous amount of pizza, as though the regular customers come there to spend an evening together drinking, talking, laughing, and eating whatever new pizza arrived at the table every half hour or so. A larger table of about 7 people that sat down after we had ordered our one little plain mootz pizza must have gotten 5 or so large pizzas delivered to it while we still waiting for ours. One of my friends commented that the thing to do at Sally's was order three pizzas, eat two of them, and take one home, because that's what most of the tables of two people around us seemed to be doing. While both Pepe's and Sally's had what amounted to cheap diner booths with old fake wood paneling all around, Pepe's felt more open and Sally's more dark and confined, again making Sally's feel like more of a neighborhood pizza joint compared to Pepe's slightly touristy appeal.

Now that I've had genuine New Haven pizza, I can comment on the similarity and difference between that pizza and the old style of New York pizza that traces its roots back to the turn of the twentieth century. The main difference between the two is in the cheese: an old school classic New York Pizza Margherita uses only fresh mozzarella cheese, which is almost pure white unlike the slightly yellowed or beige color of what most of us think of as mozzarella cheese, and is so soft that it cannot be grated and is instead used in quarter-inch-thick rounds that are sliced from the ball of cheese that is usually about three or four inches in diameter. (If you live in the Midwest, you might never have seen fresh mozzarella cheese on a pizza or anywhere else, unless you've had a caprese salad at a good Italian restaurant.) On a New York pizza, the fresh mozzarella round slices are applied over the top of the pizza a bit like a topping in the sense that there is not a solid covering of cheese but instead there are just splotches of cheese every so often on top of the sauce. A New Haven mootz pizza has the more usual American solid coating of grated beige mozzarella cheese. The other difference is in the sauce. New York pizzas have a very light and very fresh-tasting tomato sauce, with almost no flavoring (sometimes literally no flavoring) to it other than the tomatoes. New York pizzas require very good tomatoes -- you can't just break open a can of Hunt's or Heinz tomatoes for your pizza, or the result will be almost inedible. Generally New York pizzas are made using canned San Marzano tomatoes brought over from Italy. In New Haven, they also make their pizza with high-quality tomatoes, but they flavor the sauce a bit more with a few herbs and spices in a traditional American way.

Pepe's website
Sally's website

Slice entry: New Haven Pizza, Part One: Frank Pepe's
Slice entry: New Haven Pizza, Part Two: Sally's Apizza

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