Pies in the Sky

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The business of New Haven's most famous export

"cheap_valium">pizza-brickovenThe long lines on Wooster Street are a familiar part of the cityscape, as people converge to eat pizza at two historic locations. Over the last several decades, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (universally known as Pepe’s) and SallyÂ’s Apizza have " _online" online destinations for New Haven-style pizza, known for its thin, well-done crust. They, along with Modern Pizza on State Street, ZupardiÂ’s in West Haven and other local eateries, routinely appear on state and national best restaurant lists, attracting foodies from near and far in search of the ultimate gastronomic experience.

It " /wp-content/buy click here not always thus.

Here, as in many America cities, pizza arrived with Italian immigrants.

“The Neapolitans brought something a lot like New Haven-style pizza with them when they came in great numbers during the 40 years after 1880,” says Douglas Rea, a management and political science professor at the Yale School of Management and former chief administrator for the city of New Haven. “They came in spectacular numbers mainly because Sargent hardware made a point of recruiting in Naples for skilled molders and semi-skilled trades.”

italianexperiencenewhavenAnthony Riccio, author of the Italian American Experience in New Haven and Cooking with Chief Silvio: Stories & Authentic Recipes of Campania, describes the origins of New Haven-style pizza as “dry tomatoes on bread up in the mountains of Italy.
“It was peasant food coming from humble workers who brought that food over here,” Riccio says. “It was perfected by the women, who had to be very ingenious in tough times, which is probably why it’s so good. It came out of poverty and need, and was served out of love.”

One of those immigrants, Frank Pepe, left Maiori on the Amalfi coast for New Haven in 1909. He became a baker and sold pizza from a cart before opening his own pizza restaurant in 1925, two decades after the city of New York issued a license in 1905 to Lombardi’s, widely regarded as America’s first pizzeria.

“Maybe Frank Pepe started the pizza business in New Haven but everybody was making it,” Riccio says. Although Pepe’s and Sally’s, opened by Pepe’s nephew, Salvatore Consiglio, in 1938, were “magnets in their neighborhood that became landmarks,” he adds, “there were five bakeries in the Wooster Square area from the 1920s to the 1940s, and they all sold pizza.”

Meanwhile, pizzerias were popping up in other parts of the New Haven area.

Modern Apizza began in 1934 as State Street Pizza. Zuppardi’s Apizza in West Haven opened the same year and, like Pepe’s and Sally’s, still is run by family members. Roseland in Derby started as a bakery in 1935, and along with many other bakeries in Italian immigrant communities around the country, added pizza to its offerings during World War II, when gas rationing put a damper on deliveries.

Pizza chains such as Shakey’s and Pizza Hut emerged in the mid- to late 1950s, with the rising popularity of the pies.

Initially pizza was “considered a snack, almost like ballpark nachos,” says food writer Michael Stern, a cofounder of Roadfood.com. “Even in the ‘50s, it was still such a novelty.”

The July 1958 issue of MAD magazine lampooned pizza, calling it “the pie that’s rapidly replacing apple as our National Pastry.” One cartoon depicts a chef playing shuffleboard “with the paddle you think he’s using to bake your pie.” Another shows ways to eat pizza: all result in “getting icky sticky gook all over your new $49.50 charcoal grey suit.” The magazine also suggests “new uses for pizza pies,” such as life nets for firemen if, “Like all fads, Pizza Pie popularity may fade.”

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But it didn’t.

As pizza became a growing staple of the American diet, the lines at Pepe’s and Sally’s, which swelled on weekends with local diners, became longer and more diverse as information about them was disseminated through books such as Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood.

The Sterns discovered Pepe’s as Yale graduate students and praised the place in their first edition of Roadfood, published in 1977.

“One of the things I really love about Pepe’s is the semi-openness of that kitchen, and being able to watch [the pizza makers] use those long handles,” Michael Stern says. “There’s something about that ritual that seems to be historical and unchanged, and there are very few things in this world, food wise and otherwise, that maintain traditions so rigorously.”

Stern describes Sally’s pizza as “raunchier and even more soulful” than Pepe’s.

What makes New Haven pizza so special is the crust.

“It’s a combination of the flour they use, the way they knead it and the way they keep it,” Stern says. The end result “tends to be a perfect balance of chewiness and crispness. It’s almost tough. You really chew.

“There are a lot of restaurants that cook authentic Neapolitan pizza,” he adds. “They import their ovens and flour from Italy. I suppose it’s more authentically Neapolitan than what you get in New Haven. But the crust is much lighter, airy, and not as substantial.”

Quality and consistency of ingredients such as imported Italian tomatoes and pecorino romano cheese also are defining factors.

“The other thing that is unique about New Haven pizza is it is one of the few places that offers a tomato pie without mozzarella,” Stern says.

 

pepepinkblotterIn the early days, Pepe’s served two types of pies cooked in a brick ovens fueled first by coke, then coal. One had cheese, garlic, olive oil and oregano; the other contained anchovies. The now famous clam pie, with fresh littlenecks, first appeared on the menu in the 1940s, according to  Gary Bimonte, the youngest of Pepe’s seven grandchildren.

In 1937, Pepe’s moved from its original location at 163 Street [now Frank Pepe’s The Spot] to 157 Wooster Street.

Francis Rosselli, who learned how to make pizza from his grandfather, admires Pepe’s  “entrepreneurial spirit” not only for “coming up with a terrific product” but also knowing how to promote it.

“I remember the paper wrappings on straws and matchbook covers printed with the name Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana,” says Rosselli, a lute player and the family historian.

Pepe also documented the development of his pizzeria with photographs taken over the decades. One memorable image shows Pepe, “in full baker’s garb, gesturing how good the pizza is,” Rosselli says.

Bill Clinton likes Pepe’s, along with a parade of politicians and other celebrities ranging from the President Ronald Reagan to Henry (The Fonz) Winkler.

Frank Sinatra favored Sally’s, which recently lost its matriarch, Flora (Flo) Consiglio, the widow of Sally’s founder. Consiglio died on September 24 after decades of keeping the books — and the flame — from a booth opposite the cash register.

Modern owner Bill Pustari’s favorite famous customer is Steven Spielberg because “he waited in line, talked to the customers, and didn’t come with an entourage.”

These days the Internet and proliferation of food channels have made pizza “as ubiquitous as hamburgers,” Stern notes. The once-peasant food has gone upscale, with specialty restaurants using locally sourced ingredients and chains like Dominos launching a line of “artisan pies” in fall 2011.

In the New Haven area, Doug Coffin added a new twist to pie making with the Big Green Truck Pizza, a mobile catering business for lunch and dinner events using four antique International Harvester trucks equipped with wood-burning ovens.

The website allmenus.com/ct/new-haven/-/pizza/ lists 101 pizza food restaurants in the New Haven area.

Anthony P. Rescigno, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, acknowledges the role of pizzamaking in the local economy, saying, “I don’t have a dollar amount, but it certainly is an important piece of what we do in the city.”

Pepe’s, Sally’s, Modern and other area pizzerias routinely turn up on state and national best food lists. In a recent Esquire poll of “the most life-changing pizzerias in America,” Pepe’s came in second, Roseland sixth, Modern ninth and Zuppardi’s 14th.

“We’re a tourist destination because of [Travel Channel food reality show] Man v. Food Nation [host] Adam Richman, who used to come in with his mother when he was a Yalie,” says Pustari of Modern, which made Playboy’s top-ten list of best pizza in America in 2010. “All summer long, I watch all the out-of-town license plates.”

Food websites abound with former New Haven residents and natives pining for Pepe’s, Sally’s and other local pizza shops.

They’re lucky if they still live in or near Connecticut. Six years ago, Pepe’s grandchildren formed a development company that has spawned satellites Pepe’s in Fairfield, Manchester, Uncasville (at the Mohegan Sun casino) and Yonkers, N.Y. Rosselli says scouting is underway for possible sites in Stamford and Hartford.

Each new location is a replica of the original, from the signature pies to the color of the booths and photos on the walls.

The outposts pass the taste test, according to Stern, who has tried Pepe’s pizza in Fairfield and Danbury.

Also in Connecticut are Goodfellas New Haven Style Pizza in Ledyard, and Randy’s Wooster St. Pizza Shop in Manchester.

Modern Apizza’s Pustari has spread his wings using his own name on a concession stand at Seattle's Safeco Field. “There are two more opening up in the Denver Convention Center on December 6,” says Pustari, who recently helped the Sbarro chain revamp its menu.

Locally, Pustari can be seen on TV these days, in an advertisement for Montesi Volkswagen.

PetesApizza_Logo_ColorSome devotees of New Haven-style pizza have opened outposts far from the Elm City, including Nick’s New Haven Style Pizzeria & Bar in Boca Raton, Fla., New Haven Style Pizza in West Chester, Pa., Haven Pizzeria Napoletana in Bethesda, Md. and Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza, with four locations in and near Washington, D.C.

Pete’s sells pies with New Haven references, including the Long Wharf, a white pizza with local Chesapeake clams and shrimp, and Edge of the Woods, which as sautéed spinach, caramelized onions, ricotta and fried eggplant.

“We started the business ten years ago,” says co-founder Joel Mehr, who learned the trade working at Grand Apizza in Fair Haven and makes the same type of dough with water, all-purpose flour, yeast and salt. “The crust is nicely well done, with a bit of charring, but we had to dial that back in Washington.

“We have lots of people come down from New Haven, or were from New Haven originally,” Mehr adds. “The majority become regulars.”

In late September, New Haven County was the final stop on a Roadfood.com tour, with Stern escorting “a busload of serious eaters” from all over the country to Pepe’s and Zuppardi’s. Afterwards, he recalls, “Several said, ‘I hate you,’ because they’re not going to be able to pizza anything like you get in Connecticut.

“There really is nothing like it. There are very many pizza places in the United States, but once you get a taste of that crust, you need to scratch that itch.”

Mehr agrees. He and his family travel north from time to time to revisit the source.

“We plan our trips to be in New Haven at 3 p.m. so we can be at Pepe’s by 4,” he says, “to beat the lines.”


 
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