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Help me understand New Haven Pizza!!

First a little background, so you know what my pizza roots are:

I grew up in central New Jersey, where there's a decent to great family run pizzeria in every strip mall, all "New York style" (though I never would have known to call it that when I lived there).

After 4.5 years at school in central Missouri (total dearth of any kind of decent pizza.... google Imo's Pizza for examples of the weird proto-casseroles on a saltine cracker that they call pizza), I've now been in LA for 10 years. It's rare, but out here you can find a decent NY pie (not great in the way DiFara in Brooklyn is great-- but decent pies where you might be fooled if you closed your eyes). Of course there is the "California Pizza" with toppings like lox and cream and chicken tikka masala (but that's a whole other thing entirely.)

OK-- that brings us to New Haven. I've never been, and I don't understand it. What exactly IS New Haven pizza? What do they serve up that makes it (supposedly) the best pizza in the country? I've heard Sally's and Pepe's bantered about for a long time now, not quite understanding what it's all about.

For ease of response, I'll list out my questions here:

1. What exactly IS New Haven pizza? What makes it unique?

2. Where did New Haven pizza come from? What's the history? Does it have roots from New York Italian immigrants who migrated out of of the lower east side in to the Connecticut suburbs? (i.e. is it "modified" New York style pizza, or is it in fact it's own creation?) I'm wondering if there's any link between the 100+ year old New York based Lombardi's/Patsy's/Grimaldi's type places.

3. Is this New Haven style of pizza copied in other places in Connecticut?

4. What is the quintessential New Haven pie? (I've read something about clams and bacon... By comparison I'd say that in NY/NJ, the classic cheese slice is the standard by which to measure a great pie)

5. Are Sally's and Pepe's pretty much the only game for great New Haven pizza?

6. Are there any quintessential rituals associated with going out for New Haven pizza?

7. Many of the 100 year old NYC places like Lombardi's and Totonno's still use super hot coal-fired ovens (though they are illegal now, these old places were grandfathered in). Do the New Haven pizzeria's use coal ovens? Wood ovens? Regular pizza ovens? (any visit to Di Fara will illustrate that a coal oven is not necessary to make a great pie)

8. Is New Haven pizza available by the slice or pies only?

9. Are pies divided into 8 triangular slices (as god intended it) or are they hacked up into crazy irregular squares (as I've seen done many, many times during my midwest pizza encounters... even one place in LA does this, inexplicably)

Thanks for your input, 'hounds! Hopefully I'll make it out to your neck of the woods sometime soon....

Mr Taster
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  1. While one of our New Haven mavens might have better answers, I'll take a stab at it.
    1. New Haven pizza has a very thin crust, often charred from the hot oven. Plain pizza comes without mozzarella, but most customers seem to ask for "the mutz" on their "a-peets". I prefer the red over the white version because of the tasty sauce.
    2. New Haven, with an active seaport and fishing industry around the turn of the century, was the recipient of many Italian immigrants, although some undoubtedly also came from NYC.
    3. The majority of southern CT appizas seem to copy the New Haven thin crust, though there are a few exceptions.
    4. White clam pizza, supposedly invented by Frank Pepe as a joke, is the signature New Haven pie, but not necessarily its most popular one.
    5. No. Modern Apizza has won many of the recent "favorite pizzeria" polls, and I can think of quite a few other good places. Some suggest that Sallys or Pepes may have passed their peak, but tell that to the lines waiting outside those two Wooster St. flagships.
    6. Other than waiting in line (see above) I haven't experienced any rituals.
    7. Most popular places have coal or wood fired brick ovens. The one at Pepe's is enormous.
    8. I only patronize places with whole pies.
    9. Sectors, as God intended. I haven't had a rectangular slice since I left the Chicago area lo these many years ago. (And yes, I prefer New Haven over Chicago deep dish.)

    I'll close with a poem I produced for another forum two weeks ago.
    Fast food is rarely worth the bother,
    In one end and out the other.
    One exception anyone eats: a
    Sizzling pepperoni pizza

    16 Replies
    1. re: DonShirer

      Huh, it seems you addressed a question I hadn't even thought to ask...

      10. Is there any specialty lingo associated with New Haven pizza?

      What is this "a-peetz" "the mutz" business? Do people actually call it that with a straight face? It seems so.... peculiar, like I thought I knew pizza from that part of the world (that part being NY pizza) and suddenly I'm finding out there's secret codewords that I had no idea existed.

      Mr Taster
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      1. re: Mr Taster

        A-peetz = short for Apizza
        Mutz/Mootz = Mozzerella

        Just pronounciations that are prevalent in New Haven County.

        Not sure if this is universal, but sometimes the pizza is referred to as a pie, short for pizza pie.

        1. re: Jestner

          Is that Apizza as in "lets order a pizza" or is this some new word I'm unfamiliar with?

          "Pie" in reference to pizza is most definitely NOT universal... it's primarily a New York area thing. When I went to school in central Missouri, I would occasionally manage to drag my friends out to "D'Bronx" pizzeria in Kansas City-- the only New York pizza for about 1000 miles. I once lost my mind there and ordered a pie and the girl at the counter said "we don't sell dessert."

          Mr Taster
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          1. re: Mr Taster

            Apizza = Pizza. So you might say "I like a-peetz"

            1. re: Mr Taster

              It's some new word that most Italians (you know, the kind in Italy) would also be unfamiliar with. Ditto "mutz."

              1. re: Rick_V

                So it's really a very localized Italian American dialect. Pizza is the catalyst for learning so many interesting things.

                Mr Taster
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                1. re: Rick_V

                  "apizza" (a-BEETS) is the term immigrants in New Haven chose for that style of pizza (a corruption of some word in the dialect of Naples, I guess). "Mutz" is the corruption of the word for mozz., but I forget what it is. From what I can tell, the words are pretty much only used right around New Haven.

                  1. re: the scribbler

                    And don't forget about prazhoot -- you know, from Parma!

                    1. re: tripster

                      Is there another way? That's what I order at the deli counter and they look at me like I have 2 heads until I say pro-shoot-oh.

            2. re: Mr Taster

              I grew up outside New Haven, and my dad always ordered a "pie" with "schamozz" (pronounced ska-moats) Not sure where that came from!

              1. re: jillian

                scamozz is a hard mozzarella. it usually is found hanging with a small string knotted around its nub.

              2. re: Mr Taster

                To Mr. Taster

                They aren't code words; a-beets or a-peetz and mutz - mootz are English phonetics for Italian words.

              3. re: DonShirer

                I still prefer Pepe's to Sally's or The Modern (let's face it, though, this is almost a religious thing with most people there). However, I often go to the Modern since I can get 90% of the quality with often little or no wait. I only go to Pepe's or Sally's if the line looks tractable.

                1. re: DonShirer

                  1. I grew up in New Haven. You can pronounce it "NEW Haven" like the Yalies who get off the train. I pronounce it "n'HAY-ven" like the Yalies who grew up ten blocks away from campus.

                  2. Pepe's clam. Otherwise, I am a Sally's person. Yes, if you grew up in New Haven you are either a Pepe's person or a Sally's person, although you'll gladly eat either.

                  3. Sally's hot cherry pepper pie, no mutz. To die for.

                  4. Modern's terrific too, but definitely in third place. In fact, I was surprised how good Bar is.

                  5. Minervini's in East Haven. Not quite the same style, excellent secret. Originally in Fair Haven, that's why.

                  6. Ernie's in Westville. Secret. Shhhhh.

                  7. Foxon Park diet birch.

                  8. New Haven used to make Hull's Export Beer. Know why they called it "export"? Because no one in New Haven would drink it!

                  9. ah-BEETS not ah-peets. Mutz as in you gots two foots.

                  1. re: Mikelawyr2

                    I am new to ChowHound, and I have found this discussion on New Haven Pizza. I was born in New Haven and lived there until I went to college. My family was a Pepe's family and Sally's was off-limits. When we didn't want to trek to Wooster street, Ernies was our closest pizza shop. I was quite surprised to see Ernies being mentioned here.

                    When I met my wife about 17 years ago, I lived in Rochester, New York. I told her stories about Pepe's, their ovens, the wait in line, and how it was the best pizza I had ever had. She was like "right, everybody thinks that the pizza where they grew up is the best!".I couldn't wait to take her there.

                    When I took her home to meet my family, we went to Pepe's. After her first bite, her eyes widened, and all she could say with a smile on her face was "This is pretty good!". Needless to say Pepe's is a part of every trip to New haven. My wife wanted to try Sallys, and I stepped on enemy territory to take her there. She thinks that both places each had their strong points, but we go primarily to Pepes. Usually twice when we take a weekend in New Haven.

                    When my wife was pregnant with out first child, she craved Pepe's pizze. When we visited New Haven, we drove to Wooster Street, and as luck would have it they were closed for vacation. She literally sat in the car crying.

                    When we used to stay at a hotel near my families house, my wife and I used to go to Ernies, and take it back to the hotel. We would look for excuses to leave my moms house early so we could go get our (as my wife called it) sin pizza. We would sit on the bed and scarf down the pizza. It ain't Pepes, but it was still 1000 times better than anything that we could get in Rochester. I was quite surprised that Ernies made the top three pizza stops in New Haven, because to me, it was just the place we went to because it was the closest pizza shop. Oh, and about 9 years ago, if you pre-ordered, they would make slice and freeze a pizza for you to travel home with you.

                    We continue our tradition with our kids. To this day, they STILL ask when we can go to New Haven again, not to visit relatives, but to go to Pepes.

                    Last thing, our favorite New haven pizza combo is bacon and moots. There is no precooked bacon here. They take raw bacon, throw it on the pie and bake it. It is the most wonderful (and greasy) pizza that you have ever had. No pepperoni for us when in New Haven!

                  2. There is also an awful chain called Randy's Wooster St pizza that attempts to recreate the New Haven style on a mass scale. Clearly something was lost in translation...

                    1. I'm far from a New Haven pizza aficionado, but I do really like the stuff in my limited experience (a couple pies at Pepe's and one from Modern, haven't gotten to Sally's yet, but hoping to soon). I do think, however, that there are a few very unique attributes to New Haven pizza as compared with, say the NYC pizza lineage (Lombardis, Grimaldis, Patsys et al). One thing is that the crust, is extremely chewy, much more so than I'm accustomed to. I loved this about it, and it's noticably different. Second is that the layers (crust, sauce, cheese) seem somehow more unified in New Haven Pizza, melted more firmly together.

                      That said, both of these were true at Pepe's but not so much at Modern (which I found less unique and less exciting), so maybe this is more a Pepe's-specific post? New Havenites, feel free to correct my assumptions. Either way I love the stuff.

                      My friend from new haven also tells me that New Haven pizza fans are convinced that the modern, American form of pizza was invented in New Haven. I can't speak to that, but...

                      11 Replies
                      1. re: celeriac

                        Yes - I'd agree with the differences. I think the crust has more elasticity to it. Overall it is thin, chewy, yet also has that bottom layer of crispiness.

                        1. re: Jestner

                          I grew up in Stamford, halfway between New Haven and Manhattan. New Haven pizza is the cornerstone of a style seen in southern New England. Because the bar has been set so high, there are many outstanding pies throughout the region. While Pepe's (including its annex, The Spot, its original building) and Sally's are the big two, there are others on Wooster Street that are very good. Abbate has excellent pizza.

                          It's hard to say there is a New Haven "style" generic to the area; I think Pepe's and Sally's, for example, are rather different. In general, good Connecticut pie is characterized by a relatively thin crust with a well-blistered rind, ashy bottom, tangy fresh-tasting sauce and rich, elastic mozzarella, which are traits found in New York and New Jersey, too. Pepe's pies are kind of rustic; irregularly shaped like ameobas, rapidly hacked into random slices; their pepperoni is also hacked into a variety of chunks and slices. Sally's pies are also rustic and tend to be somewhat more round than square, kind of in between, and more evenly sliced; they are generally redder than Pepe's. Their clam pie is very different from Pepe's, who uses fresh whole clam bellies.

                          The pizzerias all have their followers. I believe that Bill Clinton and Garry Trudeau favored Sally's when they were at Yale; the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, also was a Sally's guy. Jerry Vale favored a place across the street from Pepe's. Frank Pepe opened his shop on Wooster in the 1920s. I believe he may have worked at Lombardi's in the city after arriving from Naples and before settling in New Haven.

                          Connecticut pie is less about a precise New Haven style than a very high standard set by the New Haven elite. There are many awesome pies in the area -- Perrotti's in the Southbury-Middlebury area, Lorenzo's in Sandy Hook, Carminuccio's in Newtown are just a few, the list is a very long one ... many restaurants in the area that are not pizzerias routinely serve excellent pies -- Il Italia in Norwalk is one. The Colony in Stamford, which is a bar, is famous for its light, thin product, but it does not resemble Pepe's. It is, however, unmistakeably a southern Connecticut pie.

                          All told, the definitive pies in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey are related interpretations of the Neopolitan-American style.

                          Or, I should say, "Nahblahtahn!"

                          1. re: misohungrychewlow

                            A few years ago I brought my ex's dad (from Milwaukee) to Pepe's for the clam pie. He thought it absurd, but played along. After two bites, he proclaimed it the best pizza he'd ever had and bought one to take back with him to Milwaukee the next day.

                            Now, "nahblahtahn" (which I used to hear as 'nahbilDAHN') is from Long Island (lawnGUYlin) not from New Haven, far as I recall. I last heard that from a guy hailing from Erster Bay.

                            For the record, I grew up in Stamford, raised by Fitz and Skeets at the Colony, am now in Pgh. Before I left Stamford in the late 90s, a number of peers were beginning to use the term 'Za' (I believe some shop actually opened up with that name) in addition to "pie", although "apizza" is definitely a New Haven County thing. "Motts" also more common that "Mootz" or "Mutts". Then again most folks dropped the 'a' and 'i' off most dishes (e.g., ricott, manigaut, annapahst, etc.)

                            Anyway, yeah, NH pie was the topic... it's the crust. A paper thin layer of crispy goodness below a 1/4" of chewy goodness, topped with stuff that doesn't slide off.

                            1. re: Panini Guy

                              "Now, "nahblahtahn" (which I used to hear as 'nahbilDAHN') is from Long Island (lawnGUYlin) not from New Haven, far as I recall."

                              I grew up on Long Island (and GOD I miss the pizza!) but I have no idea what this means. I've just spent 5 minutes trying to decipher and I give up. What is "nahblahtahn"?

                              1. re: sheil

                                I'd never heard "nahblahtahn"; I guess it's SO-CT Italian for "Napolitano".

                                1. re: sheil

                                  "nahblahtahn," or "nahbilDAHN," is the local pronunciation of the Italian word "Napolitano," or Neopolitan in English.

                              2. re: misohungrychewlow

                                We ate at the Spot, then at Pepe's, about a month apart. The Spot had the edge, although Pepe's was fine. On an earlier occasion (all these visits in Winter-Spring 2005), we had an anchovy-mozz pizza at Modern, very good, and satisfying.
                                I have some pics here: Modern Apizza Anchovy-Mozz Pizza
                                http://www.pbase.com/panos/image/4010...

                                Pepe's and The Spot: http://www.pbase.com/panos/pepes_pizz...

                                "That said, both of these were true at Pepe's but not so much at Modern (which I found less unique and less exciting)..." I would tend to agree with that. There's nothing wrong with the pizza at Modern, but it's not unique. (Given, we've only been to these 3 places one time each.)

                              3. re: Jestner

                                The crust is what I always considered the standout feature of Pepe's, since it's more elastic and chewy than the others.

                                Sally's I'd say the sauce (which more red, as others have noted) is the key feature.

                                Since we're mentioning other places, the one other place I occasionally go if I'm not in the standing-in-line mood is Bimonte's in Hamden is quite good (and, IIRC, Bimonte's was started by a former Pepe's guy).

                                1. re: kaszeta

                                  Is Bimonte's still there? We drove by not long ago and it looked like it had been swallowed up by Eli's, or turned into another eatery. We didn't get a close look though.

                                  1. re: Roundelay

                                    Actually, I had forgotten, it did get swallowed up by Eli's, but the pizza was still good last time I was there (around a year ago).

                                    1. re: kaszeta

                                      Last I checked, Bimonte's had moved north to Cheshire.

                                      After several years in New Haven (many, many years ago), I moved to Hamden and discovered Bimonte's, which became our regular favorite.

                                      Haven't been back in years, so not sure if the Cheshire location is still open, but if it is, and if it's as good as the original, it's worth the trip...and the "Joanne's pizza" was a personal favorite.

                            2. A little follow up to earlier posts: 1) The oven at Pepe's appears to be about the size of a handball court. The paddle looks like something one could pole vault with. It is said that the coal-fired oven has been heated continuously since it opened, and is cleaned with a long brush to gather the charcoal particles. 2) The Spot is the same family and similar product. The white clam pie with lots of garlic is the Spot's signature dish. I don't recall the whole belly, just fresh clam pieces. 3) Local italian dialect tends to drop the final vowel from words that seem to have enough vowels already, hence 'a-peetz' ( the 'p' has a little of a blended "b" sound). 4) People wait in long lines with umbrellas in a cold rain for prime time at Pepe's. Don't like that part? Don't go. That's part of the ritual. And then, a dozen clams oregano or casino wlile you warm up. 5) Modern (on State St.) was an early arrival on upper State St., when State St. looked like a war zone. (It had been an industrial area). That area has enjoyed a wonderful renaissance during the intervening 20 years, and offers better parking. 6) No woosie pizza squares on Wooster St. Triangles of varying angles. Whole pies.
                              7) Why take our word for it? GO!!!!!!

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Veggo

                                With regard to 2, New Haven and Amalfi, Italy are sister cities because a large number of Amalfi Italians migrated directly New Haven. Amalfi is about 20 miles from Naples, hence the direct "Nhablahtan" connection.

                                #4 - Clam pies may have started as a joke, but they are freakin' delicious. We even make them at home when we need a fix, though it's obviously not the same.

                                #5 - Add Roseland Apizza in Derby to the long list of Sally/Pepe-comparable pies.

                                #6 - Roseland also observes the ritual of standing in the rain (or the sun, if it's not raining) while you wait, though you can sign up on a sheet and wait to be called. They do takeout, though, and their food is as good as their pies.

                                And in some towns around CT, when someone asks for "moz-ah-rel-lah" they often get either a (subtle) roll of the eyes or a "you're not from around here, are you?"

                              2. Anyone know of any passable CT pizza significantly EAST of New Haven?

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: celeriac

                                  Luigi's in Old Saybrook is decent, but it's a far cry from Pepe's.

                                  Mostly, east of New Haven you quickly get into the Providence style pizza, which is an entirely different beast.

                                  1. re: celeriac

                                    I like Nuzzo's in Madison-- it has mixed reviews here but I love it. Very New Haven style.

                                    1. re: madisoneats

                                      As someone born in New Haven, you'd think I would be able to give all the details on all the different places. But no. My family always and only went to Modern Apizza. And we still do whenever I'm back at home visiting. In fact, I brought my three month old son there a few weeks ago to absorb the atmosphere and prepare to eat the pizza.

                                      My parents say we went to Modern initially because the lines at Pepe's and Sally's were too long to wait in (although Modern's lines are nothing to sniff at). But it has become a tradition and the idea of going to another place is scoffed at.

                                      my freeform summary of new haven pizza (mind you this is modern):

                                      -Thin crust that you need both hands to hold a slice with, but chewy at the ends and blackened at the bottom. tomatoey sauce without any real distinct seasoning (orgeno, etc), but not as fresh tasting as new york pies. not too much sauce, it never drips all over the place because it melds right into the cheese. the cheese is really the unique thing - shredded "mootz" that strings all over the place. plus the quality of the pepperoni and sausage (not slices of sausage - the uncased chunks) they use is just wonderful.

                                      and the cold leftovers are the best breakfast i've ever eaten.

                                      1. re: royal bisquit

                                        Cold New Haven pie as breakfast!?!?!
                                        You did grow up with it!
                                        Gotta agree with you on that point.
                                        We alway bring at least a small home and it'd gone before noon the next day.
                                        Isn't the rivalry something else?
                                        People pick a team and they are die-hard.
                                        My uncle is for Modern.
                                        My wife is for Sally's
                                        I'm for The Spot (but I'll go to any).

                                        The rivalry and loyalty really is a big part of the experience.

                                        1. re: royal bisquit

                                          Chewy, but a bit floppy. The crust is not stiff -- especially towards the middle.

                                          Man, I miss New Haven pizza.

                                          1. re: royal bisquit

                                            I'm a native New Havener myself and I love Modern as well, although I was in my thirties before I tried it. I used to live on Wooster Street and always went to Pepe's with my teenage friends on Saturdays for lunch because Sally's didn't open until 5:00pm. When Mrs. Pepe died sometime in the late 70's the pizza took a downturn (I think maybe less expensive ingredients) but it is still good. However, my favorite pizza in the area is Zuppardi's on Union Street in West Haven. Their signature pie is the sausage and mushroom and it is to die for.