White clam pie from Frank Pepe’s.
Last week in New Haven, Connecticut, we met the great-grandson of the man credited with inventing “hamburger sandwiches” in the U.S., the grandson of the creator of New Haven-style pizza, and the daughter of the couple responsible for introducing calzones to Americans. These people weren’t hard to find—in fact, they’re still making burgers, pizza, and calzones in their respective restaurants, just as their ancestors did before them.
You might not know if you don’t ask around, especially if you came here only for the pizza. New Haven is rightly celebrated for having great pizza. And though we’ll loudly sing its praises soon enough on this website—that super thin, expertly charred crust; fresh tomato pies that are all about the sauce; innovative toppings from local clams to mashed potato and bacon—to focus exclusively on the pizza itself is to miss something special about this nearly 375-year-old New England city: It’s all about family tradition.
Calzone from Tony & Lucille’s
At the legendary Frank Pepe Pizzeria, co-owner Francis Rosselli recounted how his immigrant grandparents went from baking bread to charring tomato pies, topped with grated Romano—and later inventing the famous white clam pizza—in coal-fired bread ovens on Wooster Street. Across the street at Italian restaurant Tony & Lucille’s, Anne Grecco, the daughter of the namesake couple, gave us the backstory of the beautiful antique wooden ships mounted in the dining room—handmade by her grandfather, a former cabinet maker—while we scarfed down the best calzone I’ve had in my life (secret: it’s deep-fried); meanwhile, sister Maria toiled in the kitchen and grandma Lucille popped by our table for an occasional wink and smile. At Louis’ Lunch, the iconic “birthplace of the hamburger sandwich,” fourth-generation family member and current owner Jeff Lassen cooks your burger in the same antique vertical broilers his great-grandfather once used, and builds it with the same basic accoutrements: Pepperidge Farm white toast, tomato, and onion. No condiments allowed—it’s simply not the tradition here.
Jeff Lassen cuts tomatoes next to the antique broilers at Louis' Lunch
Of course it isn’t at all uncommon for family histories to be deeply entwined with food, but in New Haven’s case, it’s the food that defines the city. This is local cuisine as created by a handful of families whose offspring, thankfully, have chosen to keep their edible heritage alive and relatively unchanged.
Nowadays, these restaurants, and others like them in New Haven, are fixtures on any visiting food-fan’s list. We can enjoy their unique culinary offerings much in the same way they were enjoyed 50, 80, 100 years ago, thanks to the deliberate passing-down of traditions. Through the stories the families tell and the food they serve, we can experience a small part of that legacy. But more significantly, these restaurants are still popular among New Haven’s everyday everyman. To locals these places are storied, sure—it’s likely some of their own family histories revolve around the food served at them—but mostly what they represent is lunch. Just like they always have.