In the Northeast, there’s New York pizza and then there’s New Haven pizza. The fact that their namesake cities are separated by just 80 miles is a reflection of what’s known as the U.S. pizza belt, those regions—not too far from Ellis Island—where the majority of southern Italian immigrants landed at the end of the 19th century, seeking factory jobs and a new life. (Of course, there are a few other Northeast cities once heavily populated by Italians, such as Boston and Philadelphia, that are not now known for their pizza, for reasons unknown.) The New Haven pizza institution was kicked off by one Frank Pepe in 1925, a Neapolitan baker turned pizzaiola whose namesake pizzeria is still kicking on Wooster Street, near a handful of other legendary spots—all of which have been thankfully preserved by family members over the decades—detailed below.
The trademarks of New Haven pizza, or apizza (“a-beets”)—a bastardization of Neapolitan dialect that survived the transatlantic journey and intervening years—include a very thin, pliant crust, with a good deal of char, and an irregular oblong shape. As in NYC, high-temperature coal-fired brick ovens are used by two of the New Haven giants, while the others use gas for fuel. Most important to know about is the city’s signature pizzas: the original tomato pie—the focus of this entry—and the white clam pie (see: white clam pizza).
A “plain” pizza in New Haven is not like what you’d get elsewhere in the States: It’s a tomato pie, and an ideal food for anyone who’s ever lamented the overuse of mozzarella on a pizza—this pie doesn’t even touch the stuff. It’s just a thin-crust, deep-red pie with tomato sauce, oregano, olive oil, and a light grating of Romano cheese. Of course, ingredients must be high-quality to achieve success with such simplicity, and in New Haven that's understood. Here is a humble, delicious pie that celebrates the roots of what pizza actually is: rustic, handmade peasant food, perfected over decades to bring the utmost balance in flavor and texture—not to mention a sense of deep satisfaction—to all who eat it. It’s a special thing.
Good to know: You can add any number of toppings, and you’re still eating New Haven apizza—we’re focusing on the tomato and clam pies only because they are the most unique to the city, and represent New Haven’s singular contributions to pizza in America.
Where: You will notice that locals tend to be fiercely loyal to one pizzeria over another, but the truth is you won’t go wrong at any of the New Haven greats when it comes to a tomato pie. Pictured is the tomato pie from Modern Apizza (874 State St., map), which opened in 1934 as State Street Apizza. Dark-paneled and wooden-boothed, it is just as beloved for its low-key, working-class atmosphere as it is for its great pizzas—and it’s nearly always easier to get into when Pepe’s and Sally’s have lunch lines out the door. Plus, it has the best beer selection of the three.
When: Tues-Thurs, 11am-11pm; Fri & Sat, 11am-midnight; Sun, 3pm-10pm
Order: A “plain” apizza ($8-$12.15, depending on size) is your tomato pie here, and if it’s your first time trying the local pizza, this is what you must order (along with some local Foxon Park birch beer or a tasty Sea Hag IPA, from nearby New England Brewing Co). Modern’s pies have a super thin crust, blackened by heat around the edges and in a smattering of bubbles, which create delightful textural and flavor contrasts. The tomato sauce is fresh and tangy; the grated Romano nutty (and they sprinkle it liberally here); and the crust deliciously chewy and smoky. If you get a second pie here (and of course you should), try the mozzarella and (locally made) sausage pizza. You won’t regret it.
Good to know: Mozzarella is a common addition for those who crave a bit more cheese on their tomato pie. In New Haven parlance, it’s “mootz,” but don’t feel like you have to call it that!
Alternatively: Hit up the New Haven original, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (157 Wooster St., map), or its across-the-parking-lot annex, The Spot (163 Wooster St.)—Pepe’s original original location, incidentally—for a terrifically balanced, fresh-tasting tomato pie (San Marzano tomatoes only), and don’t miss out on its most famous invention, white clam pizza, either. Just down the block is equally beloved Sally’s Apizza (237 Wooster St., map), established in 1938 by Sal Consiglio—a nephew of Frank Pepe’s—and carried on today by Sal’s children, where the thin, chewy, tomato-y pie has earned it plenty of “best” awards.