It's not that Zuppardi's is a secret; it's been around in West Haven, Conn., since 1934. It's just that in conversations about pizza in this neck of the woods, more often than not you're going to hear about the holy trinity of pizzerias, Pepe's, Sally's, and Modern, before anyone mentions them. Over the past few years, those three spots have been even been joined by Bru Room at BAR and their iconic mashed potato pizza. As noted before, that's a shame. Zuppardi's should get a little more love. Perhaps this interview with co-owner Lori Zuppardi may help.
Read More: New Haven's Classic Pizzerias
Zuppardi's has its own take on Connecticut's renowned thin-crust style, a cross between New Haven and New York City pizza — as thin as but less crisp than New Haven's other pies with a New York City crust that's lighter and airier than Gotham's. The clam pie (canned or freshly shucked clams, you must specify) has gotten some love, but as previously noted, there are two more interesting moves. The "Special" is a red pie with mozzarella, mushrooms, and large, crumbled chunks of flayed-open, juicy, glistening sausage. The other is a white escarole and bean pie — crisp and wet escarole, garlic, smooth, well-distributed soft bean, wet and juicy. Italians know that escarole and bean soup is a great winter savior. Here, you get that on a pie. Salud.
With her sister Cheryl Zuppardi Pearce, Lori Zuppardi co-owns the restaurant that her grandfather started almost 80 year ago. In this interview, learn about the no-sauce clam pie rule, her father's pizza philosophy, and the relationship at Zuppardi's with red pepper flakes (which if you haven't explored it in general, is one that's much more complicated than you may realize).
People know the story of New Haven pizza stalwarts like Frank Pepe, Modern, Bar, and Sally's, but may not be as familiar with the Zuppardi's history. How did Zuppardi's get started? Who started it? When? Where did he or she learn to make pizza?
Zuppardi's dates back to 1934, when my grandparents Domenic and Angelina Zuppardi opened a bakery, which largely made Italian bread. The bakery was passed down to my father and my mother Tony and Frances Zuppardi when my grandfather became ill... I would guess in the early 1940s. My dad, who had been a baker in the Navy, began making pizza. Both businesses flourished, and my dad was left to choose one. He opted for pizza. My family lived above the restaurant, and as children, we spent our free time watching, learning, and working there. My parents turned the restaurant over to their children before they passed away. My brother, sister, and I owned the restaurant until my brother became disabled. My sister and I remain owners and our children work along side us.
Do you consider Zuppardi's pizza New Haven-style pizza in the same vein as the pizzerias above or is it its own style?
I believe our pizza is in the same vein as the pizzerias mentioned in the previous question, a Napolitano style pie. Although I am sure that there are plenty of things that make us each individual in our ways, the one thing that unites us all is hard work. I can say I have only the utmost respect for the New Haven legends.
What's the philsophy and technique behind a Zuppardi's pizza?
Quite simply, my father had a philosophy that, as children, we heard over and over again. Today, I would give anything to hear him say it again: "The last bite has to be as good as the first when people eat our pizza." My parents valued their customers and took pride in putting forth a quality pizza. Although the pizza world has taken on many changes over the years, my sister Cheryl Zuppardi Pearce and I feel strongly about staying true to our parents' wishes.
What would you say is the signature pie at Zuppardi's? What's the thing you're best known for, the pie that people should make a trip to Zuppardi's to eat and cross off their must-eat list?
There are two pizzas that have topped the charts so to say, so it would come down to personal preference. I would put our sausage pizza at number one. We actually have only one combination that has it's own name. It's called "The Special." It consists of mozzarella, mushrooms, and sausage. It was named by my parents and has never changed. What makes it special is our homemade sausage. Our homemade sausage has become a favorite to many, even those who don't normally enjoy sausage. A close second would be our fresh clam pizza.
You do a clam pie… is that shucked to order?
Actually, we make two different clam pies. We offer a clam pizza using canned baby whole clams, or a freshly shucked clam pizza. The canned baby whole clams is a more affordable, tasty pizza. People tend to order it with other toppings as well. Of course, it is seasoned nicely and is very flavorful. Our freshly shucked clam pizza is just that. It is obviously a bit more costly and takes longer when it's ordered, but it's well worth it. It is most commonly ordered white, without mozzarella, although we will make it to our customers' specifications. We encourage customers to eat that pizza in our dining room right out of the oven to appreciate the extraordinary flavor.
Does Zuppardi's stand behind the same no-sauce-on-a-clam-pie philosophy as at Frank Pepe?
Yes, we Italians tend to think alike! We strongly suggest that our customers order their clam pies white, but will of course honor their requests.
Do you offer red pepper flakes at Zuppardi's?
Yes, we do offer red pepper flakes.
Do you know how long you've been offering them?
We have offered red pepper flakes from as far back as my family can remember. I can comfortably say at least 55 years.
Do you use red pepper flakes and what's your reasoning and feeling about them and how they contribute to the experience of eating pizza?
Yes, I do use red pepper flakes. I feel that on certain types of pizza, red pepper flakes enhance the flavor. It is clearly a personal preference, perhaps like adding ketchup to a burger. Some people like it. Some don't. (By the way, I don't like ketchup!)
Is using red pepper flakes something you always or never do, and which is a truer experience?
I use red pepper flakes on sausage, clam, and anchovy pizza. Those foods I prefer to be spicy, whether on pizza or prepared other ways.
Do you have any feelings about people who don't use them?
Again, it comes down to personal preference. I can say that I have noticed that over the years, more and more people request red pepper flakes to use on their pizza. However, there are many people that do not enjoy spicy foods and it is understandable that they would not use red pepper flakes.
Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.