Can New Haven’s Legendary Pizza Joints Play on the National Stage?

For generations, New Haven has been a pizza town.

The pies are distinct: more of a meal than the greasy, fold-up-and-go New York slices, more blue-collar than baroque California concoctions. They are a sort of American Neapolitan — chewy, charred and fresh, but with quirkier toppings than one might find on a traditional pie in Naples.

The culture is unique, too. Connecticut natives and Yale University graduates alike hold pointed opinions about which pizzeria is best. Each weekend, lines stretch down Wooster Street and through Wooster Square, as local families and tourists line up for lunch.

But in the past few years, things have begun to change. Suddenly, it seems like everyone wants to cash in on the popularity of the city’s signature dish.

“I’ve been promoting New Haven pizza for years and pushing it into people’s mouths — literally,” said Colin M. Caplan, New Haven’s unofficial pizza historian who wrote a book on the city’s pizza.

“This year,” he added, “it’s just gone bonkers.”

Colin Caplan leads the Taste of New Haven Pizza Lovers Tour. This year, he said, interest in the city’s signature food has “just gone bonkers.”

Mr. Caplan leads New Haven pizza walking tours and co-produced a New Haven pizza documentary. There is a New Haven pizza-making class and a soon-to-start New Haven pizza podcast. The athletics department at Yale recently announced a marketing partnership with Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, the city’s most famous pizzeria. There is a New Haven food e-commerce business, and there are numerous feisty pizza Facebook groups.

And there is merch. New Haven pizza pop art. New Haven pizza T-shirts. Even New Haven pizza baby onesies.

New Haven pizza has also spread beyond New Haven. Pepe’s has opened several out-of-state shops in recent years. Sally’s Apizza opened its first non-Connecticut location this month — in Woburn, Mass. — after first expanding within the state.

And far-flung independent pizzerias — from Chicago to just outside London — now sell New Haven-style slices, all without a New Haven location.

“New Haven-style pizza has set the standard for pizza,” Ricky Consiglio, whose father founded Sally’s, wrote in an email.

Clockwise from top left: Tour-goers on the Taste of New Haven Pizza Lovers Tour examine the char left on their fingers after after eating a slice at Sally’s Apizza; the lights at Sally’s, founded in 1938; pizzas bake in the coal-fired oven at Sally’s; a sign welcomes diners.

Mr. Consiglio — who, with his brother, sold the family business in 2017 — was initially skeptical that Sally’s could expand successfully. But he said it’s working. And it has become a pioneer in what he called the “New Haven pizza movement.”

The growth and the hype have their critics, too. They say that New Haven has something special — something specific. They worry that the expansion will take the family feel out of businesses that were once entirely family-owned and family-run.

They wonder if pizza tourism could turn the city into something like an Italian American exhibit at Epcot. And they think New Haven-style pizza sold elsewhere will inevitably lose something in translation.

“Describe the Sistine Chapel to me,” said Jim Ormrod, 38, whose great-grandfather started Zuppardi’s Apizza, which is known especially for its clam pie. “You can’t. You’ve got to go there.”

Technically, the dish that people in New Haven and beyond are so crazy about isn’t pizza. It’s “apizza,” pronounced “ah-beetz.” That’s direct from Naples: The recipes, and the name in dialect, came over with immigrants beginning in the 19th century.

New Haven has many pizzerias. But the most famous — Pepe’s, established in 1925; Sally’s, which dates back to 1938; and Modern Apizza, which was established in 1944 and been in the same family since 1988 — are known as the Big Three.

The city’s pizza tradition is built around three traditional varieties, although many places now experiment with more toppings.

The mozzarella pie from Modern Apizza, which uses an oil-fueled brick oven, not the more traditional wood or coal.Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

First, there is clam pizza, with clams often freshly shucked to order on a white pie. Then, there is “tomato pie,” made with Pecorino Romano instead of mozzarella. Finally, there is the classic tomato and mozzarella pie. Pizza lovers passionately defend their favorite.

“Pizza is the one food that joins us,” Mr. Caplan noted. “It’s also one of the foods that separates us. And we get passionate.”

Of the Big Three, only Modern has resisted any urge to expand. Bill Pustari, 60, the owner, allows only three other people to work the ovens. He’s there almost every day. He personally chooses his own tomatoes from local farms for specialty pies. He’s watchful, even obsessive.

“The only way that we’re going to stay this busy is consistency,” he says.

The pizza’s popularity has mostly spread through word of mouth, but it has also been boosted by David Portnoy, the irascible founder of Barstool Sports — known for his influential online pizza reviews and also a history of misogynistic and racist remarks — who often calls New Haven “the pizza capital of the world.”

“He clearly helped get New Haven on the map, no doubt,” said Frank Zabski, 55, the owner of the New Haven Pizza School, which runs pizza-making classes.

Mr. Zabski takes his students through the life cycle of New Haven-style pizza, from dough to oven to plate. It’s part pizza party, part history lesson. He explains the nuances — the charred bottom, the unusual toppings — while bounding around a kitchen with enthusiasm.

Clockwise from top left: Frank Zabski leads a class at his New Haven Pizza School; Mr. Zabski demonstrates dough preparation; students make their own pizzas; leftover crust after class.

“One of my personal goals is to evangelize New Haven-style pizza to the rest of the world,” he said.

Mr. Caplan is another New Haven pizza evangelist.

He argues that the city has one of the country’s great regional foods. Put New Haven pizza up there with New York bagels, Philadelphia cheesesteaks or Nashville hot chicken. It is also a point of state pride: Pizza is a highlight of Connecticut’s efforts to rebrand itself as young and hip.

As Mr. Caplan spoke, some on his tour wondered about the impact of the current boom. If you took this pie out of New Haven, they asked each other, would it still be New Haven pizza?

Colin Caplan starts one of his pizza tours at the original Pepe’s. “This is New Haven,” he said recently. “It’s shaping the rest of the country’s pizza scene.”

Hilary Dickau, 37, noted that she once worked at Mohegan Sun, the casino and resort in Uncasville, Conn., where Pepe’s has an outpost. The vibe there, she lamented, was not as good as in New Haven.

“The original Frank Pepe’s is different from the Frank Pepe’s at Mohegan,” she said. At Mohegan, “it always felt so busy, and rushed.”

Joe Coviello, 44, said he was all for business expansion. “It’s good to reach the masses,” he said. Still, he is a traditional guy. “Something like New Haven pizza? There’s something to be said for coming to the original.”

In Pizzaholics, a lively Facebook group of pizza fanatics, some critics are similarly devoted to the original version, in its original city.

“Thats not Ahbeetz,” a woman insisted, about a New Haven-style spot near Albany, N.Y. “It’s a good looking pie … but not New Haven.”

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, where pizza is cooked in a coal-fired oven, is often described as the birthplace of New Haven-style pizza.

One man lamented about the rush of imitators. “We are going to ruin New Haven style,” he said.

Jennifer Bimonte-Kelly, Frank Pepe’s granddaughter, insists that such fretting is unnecessary. She says Pepe’s pies, for instance, can be made anywhere that “upholds and maintains its technique, tradition and artistry.”

In an email, she noted that members of her family still sit on the board, even though they no longer run the day-to-day operations. And, she said, they took the transfer of ownership in 2006 — and subsequent Pepe’s expansions — very seriously. In each of their new locations, they reproduced the New Haven oven, booths and familiar green tin ceilings.

“Nothing else but an exact replica would suffice,” she said.

Still, some of the very businesspeople who cater to the New Haven pizza diaspora acknowledge their limitations.

Jimmy Fantin, who owns Fantini’s in Stuart, Fla., worked at Pepe’s as a teenager. He has filled his pizzeria with New Haven paraphernalia — old pictures of New Haven, a Yale banner, even an “apizza” definition.

But even he says nothing can beat a real New Haven slice, made in New Haven, eaten in New Haven.

“Is anything ever going to be better than the original?” said Mr. Fantin, 57. “As far as I know, no.”

A couple stays dry under a Frank Pepe pizza box.
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