As a New Yorker, I’m obviously biased when when it comes to pizza. After watching a video online about New Haven pizza, I was skeptical yet intrigued. What makes these thin-crust, coal-fired pizzas so special? Is the allure that these people cannot pronounce “pizza” as we consider it? Because no matter how you spin it, I could never mispronounce “a-pizza” as “ah-beets”. Or was New Haven pizza so special just due to the fact that the city itself is so isolated in some obscure town in Connecticut that no one knows any better? We set to find out.
Just short of 100 years ago in 1925, Frank Pepe opened up his first pizzeria in the Wooster area of New Haven, CT. The history behind Frank and his wife’s journey to this business adventure is quite storied – beginning with an upbringing in southern Italy, to failing at a bread business, and to finally saying screw it, I’m illiterate, so I’m making you come to me to eat my ah-beetz. This is the beginning of the New Haven-style pizza.
When he opened his pizzeria, he made the only thing he knew how – Neopolitan style tomato pizza. The same pizza is still available to order to this day, but luckily he expanded on the menu a bit more.
In 1937, Frank Pepe moved locations to where else but… next door. The building was newer and had more opportunity for foot traffic. It also remains the main location for the New Haven pizzeria to this day. This was where we, on our first night of our New Haven getaway, stumbled upon an extremely long line of customers waiting to be seated. So far, the signs were good that we were about to eat some solid apizza.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should know that Frank Pepe’s is most notably-known for their White Clam Pizza. Apparently this original idea was concocted by Frank Pepe himself, most likely just randomly throwing on some little neck clams that he sold raw separately.
So before I get to our verdict, just let me say this: The clams were definitely fresh and the oceany-taste seeped into parts of the bread while cooking, which was lovely. The crust was simultaneously crispy and chewy, which was remarkable. The seasoning and simplicity of the pizza itself, well, it was commendable.
However, our consensus was: Good, but, we just missed the cheese! I know cheese is an optional topping to New Haven pizzas, but I wanted to try the classic style first before tampering with and/or I thought I’d get kicked outta town to be honest.
Nevertheless, we still finished the whole pie and enjoyed just about every part of it. And when they said these pizzas were coal-fired, they really meant it. The black char on the bottom remained painted on our fingers, almost like a battle scar for the rest of the night.
Looking around the pizzeria, you can see how old yet well maintained it is. You can also definitely feel the heat from that huge (I mean huge – it encompasses that whole brick portion) fire pit.
I mean, even take a look at how long that pizza-puller-thing(?) is. That is how far deep it goes back.
We got a tour to the original location opened in 1925, which now operates as an annex to the main building out front. Inside you’ll find a lot more memorabilia, such as this pamphlet. I don’t believe the White Clam Pizza was available then, as it only lists “Neopolitan Tomato Pies”. You can also see the “booths for ladies” which allowed women to dine with their lady friends while maintaining their class and reputation. Kinda a big deal back then.
And here we have the absolute OG of pizza ovens. Still working, with the exception of a slight mishap, since 1925.
The stories that this pizza oven could only tell…
Address: 157 Wooster Street, New Haven, CT 06511