A look at pies at New Haven's best pizzerias — Frank Pepe, Sally's Apizza, and Modern Apizza — to determine which are worth visiting.

New Haven’s Best Apizza, Pie By Pie

Frank Pepe’s Yonkers location just recently opened so in honor of New Haven-style pizza coming to New York, we’re sharing our recent experience of trying New Haven’s three most well-known pizzerias on one day during a pizza club outing organized by pizza blogger, Jason Feirman of I Dream of Pizza.

Frank Pepe (est. 1925, coal-fired brick oven)

A slice of Frank Pepe's tomato pie with shrimp.
A slice of Frank Pepe’s tomato pie with shrimp.
“The Original Tomato Pie” with mozzarella.

The expedition began at Frank Pepe. As a barometer we retried “The Original Tomato Pie” with mozzarella. It’s closer in style to the pizza at John’s of Bleecker (or, considering John’s opened in 1929, John’s is closer to it!), it’s a cheese pie, but thinner, and with less mozzarella.

The classic clam pie at Frank Pepe.
Fresh clams with grated cheese, olive oil, fresh garlic, and oregano.

The clam pie? Crispy, lightly oiled, and covered with fresh, briny clams and a scattering of finely chopped oregano. It’s nothing short of fantastic. A tomato pie with mozzarella and fresh roasted red peppers (roasted daily in their coal-fired oven) was inoffensive and unspectacular.

A tomato pie with mozzarella and fresh roasted red peppers.
A tomato pie with mozzarella and fresh roasted red peppers.

While less epic than lobster, the dark horse is the tomato pie with shrimp. Juicy. Supple. What is it with Pepe’s seafood toppings? Damn, they’re fresh. First-timers: forget everything else, it’s about white clam pie with bacon, and tomato pie with shrimp. The next power move? White pie, clam, bacon, and shrimp.

Frank Pepe Pizzeria
Napoletana
157 Wooster Street
New Haven, CT 06511
Phone:
 (203) 865-5762
pepespizzeria.com

 

Sally’s Apizza (est. 1938, coal-fired brick oven)

A pie with plain tomato sauce with Parmesan at Sally's Apizza.
A pie with plain tomato sauce with Parmesan at Sally’s Apizza.
Medium onion and bacon pie at Sally's Apizza.
A medium onion and bacon pie at Sally’s.

The line outside Pepe’s is bad, but the wait inside the lovingly dingy Sally’s Apizza once you’re seated is worse. It’s not the machine that is Pepe. Once inside, there was an hour wait before anything reached the table save an enticing smell.

Medium mozzarella pie at Sally's.
Medium mozzarella pie at Sally’s.

Sally’s cheese pie is thicker than Pepe — there’s more sauce and cheese (they reach the crust’s height). But the slice still has structural integrity — no flop. Both crust and cheese have significant leopard-spotting, but the edges veer close to being burnt. White zucchini pie with tomatoes and onions? A mis-order.

Medium white zucchini pie with tomatoes and onions.
Medium white zucchini pie with tomatoes and onions.

As the waiter said, “If you want clam pie, go to Frank Pepe.” It’s not the thing to get here. If you’re interested in toppings get the Onion and Bacon pie— it’s Sally’s second best.

Sally’s top honors go to the plain tomato sauce with Parmesan. It’s one of those situations where there’s nothing to hide. If the crust or the sauce stinks, failure is abject and obvious.

While other pies in New Haven rely on toppings, here things are simple and good. There’s just sauce: sweet, garlicky and a little salty, and at the perfect ratio to crust. Not a sauce-drenched crust, but enough to ensure each bite goes down wet and easy. The next power move at Sally’s? Hot cherry peppers.

Sally’s Apizza 
237 Wooster Street
New Haven, CT 06511
Phone:
 (203) 624-5271
sallysapizza.com

 

Modern Apizza (est. 1934, gas-heated brick oven)

The medium Italian Bomb at Modern Apizza.
The medium Italian Bomb at Modern Apizza.
A half-mozzarella, half-mushroom pie at Modern Apizza.
A half-mozzarella, half-mushroom pie at Modern Apizza.

Ask several New Havenites about pizza and it’s likely they’ll say they eschew Pepe’s and Sally’s in favor of Modern Apizza. To that, we say, “You clearly have line rage from waiting at the other two places.” Yes, lines at Pepe’s and Sally’s are annoying. But Modern isn’t a solution. The atmosphere is great: wood paneling, friendly servers, clean feeling. But it’s about the pizza, and if Sally’s was the example of simplicity, these pies are overloaded and can’t hold up to their toppings. There’s absolutely no structural integrity— total hold-up-the-slice-and-watch-it-flop situation.

Mozzarella with pepperoni at Modern Apizza.
Mozzarella with pepperoni at Modern Apizza.

Modern’s Mozzarella Apizza is a waste of time. The bottom is soggy. The edges are burnt. The pepperoni pie features cheese that resembles the kind that melts over onto the pan and gets bubbly and hard. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not quite right either. Not to say that reconstitution should be the bar by which pizza should ultimately be judged, but it should be noted that after a few hours, Modern’s pizza totally expires. Whereas you can take leftover Pepe’s with you for later or freeze it and bring it back quite well in the toaster, with Modern it’s hard to believe the pizza had been fresh just hours before.

If you do end up at Modern, many claim the move is the Italian Bomb: bacon, sausage, pepperoni, garlic, mushroom, onion, and peppers. Again, structurally unsound. But, the idea goes, if you’re a meat-lover and your pie can’t even hold up to cheese, get some tasty toppings, and do your best fold job or knife and fork it. Still, we’ll inevitably have to return for: the American cheese pie, the crabmeat pie, and clams casino pie.

Modern Apizza 
874 State Street,
New Haven, CT 06511
Phone:
(203) 776-5306
modernapizza.com

The undercarriage at Frank Pepe.
The undercarriage at Frank Pepe.

After repeated visits, we’ve reached some conclusions. First of all, to I Dream of Pizza, (Jason’s three-part series is here: Frank PepeSally’sModern) we’d say with a wink, New York City is not “the pizza capital of the world,” technically that’s Old Forge, Pennsylvania.

Undercarriage at Sally's Apizza.
Undercarriage at Sally’s Apizza.

In all seriousness, those who say New Haven’s pizza is better than New York City’s are wrong. Claims that New York’s classic pies are so far above New Haven’s are also wrong. Pepe is arguably better than any rendition in New York City. Period. New York City has plenty of bad pizza and plenty of overly hyped pizza (Franny’s and La Pizza Fresca to name two).

At the end of the day, we’d take the experience of waiting and eating Pepe’s clam pie or Sally’s Plain Tomato Sauce with Parmesan over the experience of eating at Grimaldi’s and say they’re just as worthwhile as the experience of Di Fara (which isn’t always on point).

This post was originally published November 12th, 2009, on the now-defunct, James-Beard Award-nominated blog AlwaysHungryNY.com.

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