New Haven Pizza Primer: The Big Four
If you love pizza, really love pizza, there are checklist destinations across the country you know you have to hit. Weeks could be spent sampling storied pies and slices in New York's boroughs alone. One pocket of must-try pizza that's more manageable-- that you can do in a day-- is the New Haven pizza experience.
Gennaro Lombardi may have kicked off the love affair between New Yorkers (and Americans) and pizza, but twenty years later, and about 80 miles to the northeast, Frank Pepe started a tradition of thin crust pizza that has made a pilgrimmage prerequisite for discussing pizza with authority.
There are four basic stops: two on Wooster, one on State, and one across from New Haven's other most famous food pilgrimmage, Louis' Lunch. Trying different style toppings is vital. You need to try four pies: clam pie ('no sauce, no mozz'), red pie ('no mozz'), all-out toppings, and exotic toppings.
What’s so great about Pepe’s? What's led to accolades like best place to eat pizza in the world? Basically, the crust that's formed in the coal-fired brick oven. It's light and thin. The tomato sauce-- salty-sweet. And the cheese-- knowing when to say, 'hold the mozz.' There are six locations, including one in Yonkers, New York, which makes pizza that's virtually indiscernible from the goods in New Haven. But there's nothing like eating it there, and at the original location next door called, The Spot. The one thing you must eat? Clam pie. Once you've tried it, the pizza nuances really begin.
Sally's, which also has a coal-fired brick oven, was opened by Sal Consiglio in 1938 when at 18 he needed to provide for his family when his father took ill. As Sal's wife, Flo, told Adam Kuban, Sal perfected his pizza-making craft as a teenager in his uncle's pizzeria. Uncle who? Frank Pepe. What's the difference between the two? Sally’s cheese pie is thicker than Pepe’s—there’s more sauce and cheese (they reach the crust’s height). But slices maintain structural integrity. Must-eat? Tomato pie.
Established in 1934 as State Street Pizza, Modern's coal-fired brick oven puts out pizza in the same thin-crust style. It's likely that you'll hear it spoken about as the place "the locals go instead of Pepe's and Sally's." That may be so. The atmosphere is great-- wood paneling, friendly servers, a clean feeling-- but it doesn't play third-string just because it's not on Wooster. Modern's pies are a little topping-heavy with less structural integrity. Given the focus on toppings, the iconic Italian Bomb is the pie to try: bacon, sausage, pepperoni, garlic, mushroom, onion and pepper.
Bru Room is much younger than the three stalwarts above. It started kicking out brick-oven pizzas in 1996 when it was added to BAR. But you can make the argument that its pies are just as good if not better than Modern's. They do the red, white, and red 'with mozz' pies, same as the others, and a clam pie that's very respectable. But the thing to have is the mashed potato pizza with cheese.