Quintessential New Haven: What To Eat

Eat Your World spotlights regional foods and drinks around the globe, from New York to New Haven, Conn.

New Haven has an affinity for the old. This is, after all, a nearly 375-year-old New England city, with all the usual hallmarks: an Ivy League university (Yale); ­a spacious Puritan-constructed downtown "green," or grassy town square; graceful, if peeling, Victorian architecture; even a nickname after trees (Elm City). Fortunately, that respect for the past extends to the historic city's cuisine, defined as it is by a handful of old-school, family-owned, working-class businesses that keep tradition alive. There's pizza, of course, an institution here ever since a Neapolitan immigrant named Frank Pepe began cooking apizza in his Wooster Street bakery, igniting a trend — not to mention a distinct style of pie — that continues to draw legions of fans today.

But other businesses — other remains of a once-larger Italian community, offer beloved local products, even the country's original "hamburger sandwich" purveyor — are likewise still run by third- or fourth-generation family members in New Haven. This is a town that values authenticity and tradition, a fact obvious the minute you engage anyone behind a counter. It's a long-ingrained love you can taste, too.

The city has gone through a rough patch of economic downturn and high crime in recent years, but increasing signs of revitalization — a stronger-than-ever restaurant scene, an eclectic new co-op market, a shiny new Apple store — are afoot. We can only hope that the old keeps up with the new, and New Haven's unique brand of family, tradition, and honest home-cooked food survives for another hundred years.

So what is there to eat in New Haven?

Pizza, of course!
The original apizza is a must, as is the white clam pie, a garlicky, Romano-dusted New Haven invention itself. But the tomato pie — what you'll get if you order a "plain" pizza in this town — is the one that started it all. A deep-red pie with tomato sauce, oregano, olive oil, and a light grating of Romano cheese, it defines the general characteristics of all New Haven pizzas to come: a very thin, pliant crust, with a good deal of char, and an irregular oblong shape. Humble and delicious, this pie celebrates the roots of what pizza actually is: rustic, handmade peasant food, perfected over decades to bring the utmost balance in flavor and texture to all who eat it.  Read more.

There are calzones in Italy, calzones in pizzerias across America, and then there's this calzone in New Haven, from Tony & Lucille's, a little family-owned Italian restaurant that is widely credited with popularizing the dish in the U.S. What else makes it special? This one's deep-fried, not baked. It's a deep-fried half-moon of pizza dough stuffed with cheese and anything else you want inside, then folded over, cooked, and served with marinara sauce. The pepperoni blew our minds. Read more.

The "hamburger sandwich"
New Haven is famously home to a joint that says it invented the hamburger sandwich — the idea of putting a round of ground steak between two slices of bread — in 1900. It's still served at Louis' Lunch almost exactly as it was back then: a lean but juicy ground-beef patty cooked to medium-rare in a now-antique vertical broiler and placed between two slices of white toast with tomato, onion, and optional cheese. No bun, no ketchup, no mustard — just a unique, century-plus-old local take on a hamburger. Read more.

Local craft beer
Pizza, calzones, burgers — you think we'd forget the beer? New Haven's local brew scene isn't huge, but between its one brewpub, smattering of regional breweries, and handful of quality beer bars, there's plenty of quality options for a discerning drinker. When in doubt, order a sampler! Read more.

Local soda
The nonalcoholic alternative to wash down those guilty pleasures is a locally made, family-owned soda called Foxon Park — an icon in its own right in New Haven, where over the decades it's become the default drink of choice at many of the city's historic restaurants. Among its 18 refreshing, nostalgia-inducing flavors are cream, grape, ginger ale, root beer, orange, gassosa (Italian lemon-lime), and a particularly beloved white birch beer — a crisp and refreshing palate-cleanser. Bonus: It's made with real cane sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup. Read more.

Laura Siciliano-Rosen is the co-founder of Eat Your World, a website that spotlights regional foods and drinks around the globe. Follow Eat Your World on Twitter @eat_your_world.