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Pizza reviews: Lombardis/Di Fara/Sally's/Pepe's

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I recently decided to take it upon myself to figure which pizza place in the NY/CT area had the “best” pizza. In order to judge them properly one must be able to eat them all within a fairly short time period. I tasted a plain pie and when available, 1 clam (white only) pie. I was afforded that opportunity this past weekend and must pass along my findings. On Friday I ate @ Lombardi’s in NYC. I had always thought that Lombardi’s served a good pie but seemed to be over rated. And my findings did not disappoint me. The pie was good, nothing great. Over the past several visits I have noticed that no particular care is given to the cooking pies. It seems that the business has gotten in the way of properly cooking the pizzas. Get them in and get them out, which is too bad given the quality of the ingredients. The sauce and cheese all seem to be in good proportions. The same problems plague the clam pizza. The crust was unevenly/undercooked. The toppings were true to form, very fresh but very poorly arranged (there was actually a piece that didn’t have ANY clam on it whatsoever!) I will say that Lombardi’s is at the bottom of my small survey. On Saturday we did back to back Sally’s/Pepe’s of New Haven CT tasting (my babysitter Friday night provided me with the “secret” # to Sally’s to “reserve” a table). Again we ordered 1 plain pie and 1 clam pie. After a 1 hr and 15 min wait our pies were delivered to our table. Upon 1st inspection both seemed perfect for our liking. My 1st bite into the crispy garlicky clam pizza provided me with nothing but disappointment. The clams seemed to lack any real flavor and my wife went so far to say they tasted “canned”. I had to agree. The pizza itself was perfectly cooked and had it not been for the offtasting clams this could have been very close to perfection. Next slice came from the cheese pie. This to me was as close as you get to a perfect plain pie. Perfect balance of sauce to cheese. The crust was perfectly charred and crisp. I think the dough could have had a little more salt but it was delicious. My only gripe would have been the temperature. I do not know if they waited for the clam pie to come out of the oven or if it was put on a cold tray, the pizza should have been piping hot and it was not. It was closer to tepid than hot. Be that as it may, it was a stunning pizza. I have always thought that Pepe’s was the be all and end all of pizzas. On occasion (as rare as that may be) the pie will be a little thick and uneven in the crust. That was not the case on Saturday. Again we ordered 1 clam and 1 plain cheese. The interesting thing to note was when we left the sign on the door indicated that they were not serving clam pies. During our visit they ran out and therefore were no long available. I wonder if Sallys ran out of fresh clams and just substituted canned clams? Anyway, both pies came to the table piping hot and full of flavor. 1st bite was out of the clam pie and I was in heaven! Crisp, clam/garlic/olive oil flavors abound! That clam pie is to die for. The cheese pie was also delicious. Although a little thicker than Sally’s, it did not suffer from the same Lombardi-like undercooking. It was perfectly charred with the right amount of chewy/crisp crust that I like. All in all, a better experience than Sally’s but the plain pies were very close (I’d give the nod to Sally’s on this visit to the plain pie). Last and by NO means last was Di Fara in Brooklyn on Sunday. I have read and read about Di Fara for quite some time but have never found myself on or near Ave. J in Brooklyn. That is probably my single biggest mistake…not getting here sooner. Although Di Fara does not have a clam pizza, this, IN MY OPINION is the greatest singular expression of pizza I have EVER eaten. Those looking for atmosphere look elsewhere! Dominic De Marco has been making pizza here for over four decades and by the looks of things, NOTHING has changed. He makes (at least the day I was there) all the pizzas himself. He uses genuine buffalo mozzarella that he slices in his hand. All ingredients are genuine top quality and each pie he makes he takes his time. He also tends to the pizza oven which insures that each pie is cooked to perfection. When the pie comes out of the oven it is piping hot and perfectly cooked. Dominic then hand grates romano cheese that you can sprinkle on top. WOW, what a pizza. The perfect balance of flavors, heat and texture. Without question the best of the tasting. I will say that it has ZERO atmosphere and can be slow. But it is worth the wait. To truly experience this pizza do not be tempted to take out. It MUST be savored as soon as it comes out of the oven. Those trying to judge this pizza after putting it into a cardboard box will not experience this slice of heaven properly.
Please understand that I judge pizza by MY tastes. I grew up in CT and believe real pizza is thin crusted and crispy. I spent 15 years in Chicago. To me Chicago deep dish pizza is the antithesis of what pizza should be. But yet people there seem to love it and HATE NY style pizza. So this just goes to show you: it is all subjective and all comments should be taken as such!

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  1. LVI, good god, this could be published as a book you know. Do you have any suggestions east of New Haven?

    2 Replies
    1. re: Gregory

      Sorry, live closer to NYC.

      1. re: LVI

        Can't give up the waterfront spread in Madison to taste pizza in NYC

    2. I was always a Modern man myself when I lived in New Haven. Sally's and Pepe's (esp. Sally's) were always too soggy for my taste. That said, I agree with you that DiFara's in Brooklyn takes the cake. Or the pie, as it were.

      2 Replies
      1. re: a&w

        I ate at Modern a while back (3-4 months) and found it average with too thick of a crust.

        1. re: LVI

          Modern usually has a thinner crust than Pepe's or Sally's (neither of which has an especially thin crust compared to other New Haven places). It's not as thin as some of the New York, especially Brooklyn, places, but I've always found it thinner than the average New York style pizza. Whether or not it's average quality aside from that is another thing entirely, but I would consider it anomalous to get a pizza at Modern that wasn't very thin.

      2. LVI,

        Great review! My hobby is sampling hot dogs from all over, and I wish I could write a hot dog review as good as your pizza review. I've never sampled any of the pizzas mentioned, but I do enjoy reading the posts here and elsewhere about the many pizza places in New York, N.J. and Conn. I see the Conn. places mentioned often, as well as DiFara's, Lombardi's, and Grimaldi's in N.Y. From the passion and number of posts about Pepe's and Sally's, I've always assumed these places make the best pizza. Living in N.J., much closer to Brooklyn, I think I'll check out DiFara's. Thanks.

        1 Reply
        1. re: John Fox

          Hotdogs - In and around Providence, RI there are place that serve "New York System Hot Weiners". Some places are dinners, others pizza joints and still others just the "Gaggers" as the locals call them. Next time you pass through, try Harry's Hot Weiners in Warwick. Ask for at least 4 (they're small) with everything (mustard, wiener sauce, onion and celery salt).

        2. You need to try Roseland in Derby,CT the next time you come up. About 30 minutes west have New Haven right off rte 34 on Hawthorne Avenue. Just as good as all those places you mentioned.

          4 Replies
          1. re: Richie

            I second Roseland - I've wooed women with their shrimp oreganato pizza with bacon (leave off the fresh tomato).
            Their other pizza choices are also excellent.

            1. re: Bob Dobalina

              Tell me more about the Roseland pizza please. Thick crust, thin??? Crispy? Burnt?

              1. re: Bunny

                As a Brooklynite, now transplanted in CT, I really like Modern Pizza, when I need some decent pizza. Pepe's/Sally's OK too, but NOTHING comes close to DiFara!

                As for Roseland, I went there years ago, and it's OK, nothing special. Never went back because they were lacking soap in the Ladies Room, and that turned me off to the place.

                1. re: Bunny

                  Thin crust - a little burnt I suppose - I think they may put a little bit of cornmeal or bread crumbs on the bottom of the pie.

                  I have never had a bad meal there - of course, I can't speak of the amount of soap in the ladies' room.

                  It's a family-run place that's always been kept well - I am reasonably certain the lack of soap was a mere oversight that could have been corrected with a mention to the staff.

            2. Thanks for the informative reviews. Based on years of pizza eating in the NY area I agree with your rankings - DiFara's on top (pizza heaven, a place I enter with reverence), but I give a close 2nd to Pepe's for their clam pie.

              You should try Una Pizza Napoletana on East 12th St. in Manhattan (I think near 1st Ave, but check before you go). This place is more like "artisinal" pizza, with much care and high quality ingredients for every component of the pie. They have a limited menu and close when they run out of dough each day, and there is often a line to get in. While it is not my absolute favorite, it ranks way up there and I respect the owner's dedication to his craft.

              1. try Bar in new haven, good thin crust pizza, although reccently they have been putting a bit too much cheese on their pies. also franny's in brooklyn is very very good. I just posted this on another pizza post, but www.biggreentruckpizza.com a 1940's restored truck with an italian woodfired pizza oven is incredible pizza. you can hire them for parties it is a great pizza experience, worth saving up for!!!!

                1. I was in New Haven from NYC this weekend and had the chance to sample Sally's and Pepe's head to head (I ordered takeouts from both and ate them together in the park that's between them). I ordered my standard test pizza: sausage with mozzarella and tomato sauce. I always judge pizza parlors by their sausage pizzas because (1) I love sausage pizza and (2) I think the quality of sausage they use (tastewise) is a sensitive indicator of how much attention they pay to the finer details of pizzamaking.

                  In terms of taste alone, Sally's beat Pepe's hands down. Absolutely no competition. First, Sally's had a delicious sauce - a perfect blend of sweet, salty, and a little tangy (I am still dreaming about it now). I could have been happy just eating a pizza with that sauce on an otherwise unadorned pizza crust. Pepe's sauce was utterly forgettable, not as salty, not as sweet, and generally lacking in oomph. Second, while neither had the kind of intensely-flavorful spicy sausage that I used to eat as a kid in Chicago, at least Sally's sausage had some spices. Pepe's sausage was too salty, very fatty, and cried out desperately for spices. The crusts at both Sally's and Pepe's were both thicker, heavier, denser than what I usually prefer (I guess this is just the New Haven style of pizza crust). Having said that, both were good. Both had nicely charred bottoms - leaving a fine black powder on my fingers that I had to wash off afterwards - without any "burnt taste." I think I would have probably preferred the Pepe's crust, for being a little chewier but not onerously so, if it had been slightly salty (it was pretty plain, lacking in saltiness and spice). Sally's crust was maybe a little too firm - I can understand why someone else wrote in a thread on New Haven's pizza that his jaw feels tired after anytime that he eats pizza there.

                  Neither Sally's nor Pepe's cheese was especially good, but of the two, I preferred Sally's. In fact, there was something about Pepe's (smell and taste) that turned me off from the first bite (regrettably, I don't know how to put it into words). After eating alternate slices from the two pizzerias for the first few minutes, I just couldn't make it through the rest of the Pepe's mainly because of the cheese, although the sausage didn't help. I ate every last bit of Sally's though, and could have had more.

                  After that, I also had a clam pizza from Sally's since I was in New Haven and had never tried clam pizza before. It was white sauce/garlic and oil - and it was good, but I think I would have preferred one with more garlic and more salt. I would have liked to have tried a Pepe's clam pizza, but there wasn't room for it.

                  I had read the article comparing the Sally's and Pepe's experiences on sliceny.com before my trip, so I was anticipating a much harsher experience in terms of service from Sally's. Since I got takeouts, I didn't get the full experience at either (thankfully). However, I can say that there already were lines at both places when I arrived just after 5pm on a Saturday. The line was a lot longer at Pepe's, with maybe a dozen people lined up outside. At Sally's there were just 4 guys (a group of friends) lined up outside when I arrived and another couple inside (although when I left with my pizzas 40 minutes later - as the 4 guys who had been ahead of me were just being seated, the line had grown to maybe a dozen outside at Sally's as well). Despite the longer initial lines, Pepe's beat Sally's out in terms of the wait in two ways. First, you could bypass the wait at Pepe's by going to Pepe's smaller restaurant (The Spot), which is literally just a few steps around the corner from the main restaurant, serves the same food, and which had no wait at all. Second, Pepe's had an employee (at least he was wearing a shirt that said Pepe's) in the parking lot next to the restaurant who was answering questions of people in line and telling them that it was possible to eat at the spot with a shorter wait. By contrast, the 4 guys lined up ahead of me at Sally's had no idea what was going on in the line there. When I asked if names were being taken and how long the wait would be, they had no clue. They said they had been told to wait outside, but had not seen anyone come out in 20 minutes to tell them when to expect they might get a seat. They also noted that several people had come in and apparently been seated ahead of them while they were waiting. Had I been planning to eat in, especially in a group, Pepe's or The Spot would have been preferable in terms of the wait, as well as space and lighting (Sally's is pretty dark by comparison). And just watching the guys pull pizzas out of the oven using that extremely long pizza peel (great picture at sliceny.com) was the highlight of the trip.

                  1. FYI - Sally's uses canned clams. Pepes uses fresh, and stops serving when they run out.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Jestner

                      Yeah, I realized too late that if I was going to try a clam pizza it should have been one from Pepe's. Will have to get one next time I'm in the area.

                    2. I have to put my two cents in here. I've tried all of the places mentioned here more than once: Sally's, Pepe's, Bar, Modern, Roseland, Di Fara's, Lombardi's, etc. From that list, I'm going to have to give the edge to Sally's and Di Fara's. However (stepping onto my soapbox), the best by far is DeLorenzo's in Trenton, NJ on Hudson St. Sorry, but when it comes to a plain pizza, nothing else is close. Have them put fresh garlic on it, and it may well be the single best thing you'll ever eat in you life.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: vonmoishe

                        I second Modern. BTW, those best of NH type sites are good to check up on before you go. Also interesting in NH is the Trolley museum, with rolling stock from many locations including NYC, if you need a reason other than pizza to go. Ted's Hamburger is also near by in Meriden (NH also has its own style of steamed burger).

                        Di Fara is a unique product so it takes you by surprise if you do not eat it regularly. Familiarity does bread contempt. In Brooklyn Lucali is really amazing, not to mention a fantastic idea for a restaurant interior.

                      2. I like Pepe's a lot more than Di Fara. I find that Di Fara's pizza would be better if he didn't put so much olive oil on top (he uses what looks like a bronze watering can to pour the olive oil on the pizza).

                        Pepe's may be my favorite place for pizza in New England, though I have yet to try Sally's, Modern, and Roseland.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: hiddenboston

                          I agree about the olive oil used at Di Fara's. On the day I visited, he put olive oil on pretty liberally before baking and then again when the pies came out of the oven. I'm not that big a fan of olive oil in general, and especially not on pizzas. But I know this is a point on which there is a huge difference in personal preference. One of my best friends, who incidentally used to work in a pizza restaurant in Boston, insists on adding plenty of olive oil to pizzas right before he starts eating. He always asks the waiter for some. (He's Brazilian, but I have no idea whether that's even remotely relevant ...)

                        2. I would love to suggest a new place, Camputaro's pizza in Wallingford. It's the best I have had. I dont even live in town and we eat there, =]].

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: dukes

                            This is a hypster for Camputaro's. Dont be fooled. Read my review of Camputaro's. It is thick dough (measured 1/2" thick), overly candysweet sauce, etc. It is like supermarket pizza. I only say this to save you from running off to try some very mediocre pizza, in my opinion.

                            It aggravates me that this fodder finds itself in a thread about Lombardi's, Di Fara, Sally's & Pepe's. Camputaro's is no where close to being the same style.

                          2. LVI, great , great post! I realize that this is an old thread, and there is a lot written about this already, but I just wanted to add some additional info that might be helpful from someone who was raised in Chicago, has lived/worked in New Haven for over ten years, lived steps from Modern for three years, has a fiancee who is OBSESSED with Sally's, and has lived in NYC for the past two years. Chicago style pizza is not for people who like NY pizza, but if you go to have it, make sure you go to a great Chicago style place like the original Uno's, Pizzeria Due, or Gino's East (um, also, I left Chicago about fifteen years ago, so things may have changed). Like I said, the bf is obsessed with Sally's, so we go about once a week. The best pie there, in our opinion, is the large, "mootz" (mozzarella cheese), with garlic. It has to be large and it has to be eaten there. If you get a different size or takeout, it's not as thin. The service drives me crazy, and the inconsistency can be maddening. However, the bf claims that the elusive Sally's perfect pie is a thing of beauty, when it's uniformly thin throughout, just the right crispiness balanced against chewiness, the right amount of sauce melding seamlessly into the cheese and the slick of oil on top, and just the right smattering of garlic. I have less patience, but the perfect pie really is amazing. BF lived in California for a while for school, missed Sally's like crazy, and dreamt that he was eating a slice only to wake up realizing that he was chewing on his night mouth guard! I LOVE the clam pie at Pepe's, which is no relation to the clam pie at Sally's. It's the best pie there by far. Modern is wonderful, pretty uniform in consistency, but not as revelatory, in my experience. My faves at Modern are the margarita (only available in small size), and they do very good white pies with eggplant. And nothing really compares to DiFara's, but the wait there can be unbelievably bad. Bf loves the sicilian plain slice and I LOVE the thing slice with fried artichokes on top, but only when the artichokes are fresh - canned are no good. Just my advice for y'all.

                            1. the only thing you left out about DiFara,LVI,is that when the pizza comes out of the oven and he adds the romano cheese he also drizzles a little olive oil around the pie and then hand clips a little fresh basil over it. the perfume that hits your senses as you take first bite is a true gastronomic treat. THIS IS TRULY THE BEST PIZZA I HAVE EVER EATEN BY ANY STANDARD.