After a too-long interlude filled with thesis-writing, graduation and a new summer job, I have returned to continue regular updates of this blog. Thanks for the show of support from many of you who told me you missed reading my posts. I’m sure some of you look forward to my posts about as much as you would a pestering chain letter, but here I am anyway. Luckily, I’m sure many of you are interested in the topic of the day: pizza. Not just any pizza, but the pizza of New Haven, Connecticut, one of the finest pizza cities in the country.
Before I get to that I want to mention the real reason Empanada Boy and I were in New Haven last weekend. We came to visit Trader Joanna’s cousin Maple Syrup and her partner Espresso who live near Yale where Espresso is a professor. We had a great dinner with them on Saturday night, including sauteed vegetables, salad, rice and a delicious salmon sauced in a mysterious sweet-salty liquid whose recipe Espresso refused to reveal. Our dessert was a beautiful spread of summer fruit— peaches, plums, strawberries, blueberries and figs— along with a cheese platter and dark chocolate. There is no better way to end a summer day.
The next day, I decided Empanada Boy had to try the great New Haven pizza I had long raved about. The year after I served as editor-in-chief at the Wesleyan Argus, I created an emeritus role for myself of restaurant critic. After quickly exhausting the limited number of Middletown-area establishments, I branched out to New Haven with a story on two of its legendary pizzerias, Sally’s and Pepe’s. Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, as Pepe’s is more formally known, was founded in 1925 by its namesake, an Italian immigrant. In 1938, Pepe’s nephew Sal Consiglio opened Sally’s Apizza just down the street. Both have coal-fired ovens, which gives their crusts a blackened, crackly chew. And both routinely make it to the short list of the best pizzerias in the country. This family rivalry obviously calls for a showdown, which is exactly how I structured my reviews for The Argus. In my showdown, Sally’s won by the slimmest of margins, thanks to its fantastic tomato sauce. But Sally’s wasn’t open for lunch, so Pepe’s it was. (I know Auntie Pasti and Corn-y Uncle, both Yale grads, would also want me to mention the excellent Modern Apizza, which I also hope to review here someday soon.)
Pepe’s is famous for its clam pizza, which is topped with large chunks of garlic and fresh clams. I believe the real signature pie is the white pizza, which has no cheese and is fantastic. But EB and I had a hankering for some mozzarella. The pizza arrived on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper, and it was a magnificent sight to behold. The glistening, blistered surface was slicked with garlicky oil and delicious, rich clams. Each bite brought the perfect balance between chew and crunch with the tangy, salty clams making it a special treat. Our one complaint was that the mozzarella wasn’t fresh— a detail I hadn’t remembered due to the white pizza I ate on my earlier visit. Fresh mozzarella like the stuff served at Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn would have brought this pizza to the nirvana it deserves.
Our medium pizza was definitely large enough for the two of us, although all of the couples around us either shared two medium pizzas or one large (lots of leftovers was obviously parts of many people’s plans). We had two slices left and had almost maxed out our stomach real estate. But as we left the restaurant, I knew there was one word that would make EB excited: cannoli. Right next door to Pepe’s is Libby’s Italian Pastry Shop, which serves a vast array of traditional Italian cookies made with ingredients like marzipan and sprinkles and about five different flavors of cannoli. We got a classic cannolo and a lemon Italian ice in a squeeze cup. The Italian ice was biting and delicious, but the cannolo was a bit disappointing. The shell was too thick and had been fried too long ago. The cream had been sitting in it for too long, as well. After having heavenly filled-to-order cannoli at Pasticceria Natalina in Chicago, we could never go back to the heavy solidity of the overly chilled pre-filled version.
There would be no dinner that night after we drove home from New Haven, but the overstuffing we gave ourselves was warranted and worth it. How often do we come to New Haven? Not often enough, as it turns out. The next time we come to visit Maple Syrup and Espresso, we’ll be stopping at Sally’s on the way home. Showdown 2009 continues!
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
157 Wooster St.
New Haven, CT 06511