New Haven Pizza Guide
I am not going to lie, this is a trip I have been thinking of doing for a while now, ever since I heard that New Haven pizza is the best style of pizza in the US. I have had the New York, Detroit and Chicago style pizza but was curious to see what New Haven style was all about. From afar it looked delectable and everything I heard reinforced that belief. It was a trip I had discussed with my son several times over the last few years. After kicking around a few ideas for a father / son trip this year I finally pulled the trigger on New Haven. We just got back a few weeks ago and had a great time. We even have the expanded waistline to prove it! I figured this trip would garner enough interest to create this New Haven pizza guide. I'll share our experience, how we booked the trip and our overall thoughts on if New Haven pizza is the best pizza in the US.
How We Booked Our Trip To New Haven, Connecticut
New Haven has a small local airport but it appears to only be covered by Avelo Airlines, which made it not really an option for us. That left Boston or New York as the best options to fly into. The New York airports are probably a little bit closer, at 1 1/2 – 2 hours away. We went with Boston though, at 2+ hours away, because it had the best flight options and prices. We ended up paying cash, around $230 roundtrip, which we covered with some Amex airline incidental credits.
I rented a card from National Car Rental for $115 for the two days. Boston Logan's car rental companies are located next to the terminal and just a short bus ride away. Since I booked with National I was able to walk directly to the garage, grab my car from the Executive aisle, scan my app and was on my way. It took like 20 minutes in total once we stepped foot on the bus.
We landed late morning and headed straight to New Haven. We planned on getting there a little after lunch time and expected to spend most of the afternoon in town. After that we headed to Providence, Rhode Island to spend the night at The Graduate Hotel. We finished up the trip by heading to Salem, Massachusetts to meet some friends for lunch. Then we crashed at the Hyatt Regency Boston Harbor, a fantastic airport hotel, before our morning flight.
What Is New Haven Pizza?
One question I was looking forward to answering on this trip is, what is New Haven Pizza exactly? I knew it was supposed to be thinner than New York Style, quite the achievement, and that it had a long history. Outside of that I didn't know much else about it. After having experienced it in person I would describe it as a mix between New York and Italian / Neapolitan style. The sauce and cheese feel very New York like but the dough gives me Neapolitan / Italian vibes.
First off, it isn't called pizza, the old school establishments call it apizza. In the original establishments it is cooked in a coal fired brick oven which adds a unique flavor to it. The dough often sits overnight to give it more time to ferment too. The end product ends up being a charred (not burned) imperfect circle of goodness. It may look like the brick oven pizza you would get at home but the coal flavor, versus wood or gas, is noticeable. New Haven has some specialties like the White Clam pizza and the mashed potato pizza. For the purpose of this experiment we wanted to compare apples to apples and ordered a peperoni pie from each joint.
New Haven Pizza Guide: Locations
Knowing there was only going to be two of us I limited our visits to four locations. There are probably 6 or 7 worthy spots to try but we stuck with the three OG (original gansta) staples and threw in a highly rated new(ish)comer. Our selections were:
We went to them in that order, mainly for routing purposes. Modern Apizza sits a little bit on the outskirts of town and BAR is in the heart of downtown. Sally's and Frank Pepe are conveniently located down the street from each other on Wooster street (Little Italy area, but no one calls it that). I'll break down our thoughts on each location and give you a rating from my son for every location. I'll also share my thoughts on them all below.
First up was Modern, founded in 1934, and what many people consider their favorite. We struggled to find parking because there is only a small lot next to the establishment. We ended up parking on the street a few blocks away and walked over. There were a few people in line ahead of us but we were seated within 5 minutes or so.
The dining room is broken into two parts, and is almost entirely booth seating. The waitress comes around pretty quickly and is looking to get your order and get you moving. There isn't much chit chat at these smaller, older locations. They are trying to get you in and out fairly quickly, which is nice to see but also makes it a bit of an impersonal experience. We ordered our small pepperoni pizza, drinks and waited the good wait.
That wait was only about 10 minutes. I will say the food delivery was impressively fast in 3 of the 4 places. That must be one of the plus sides of having thin pizzas. I will also say that we ordered smalls at every location, trying to save precious stomach real estate, and they were the size of mediums or large pizzas at most normal places.
When the pizza came out we were both starving and eager to dive in. The problem was the pizza didn't want to work with us so much. The thin crust worked against this pie and most of the cheese and and toppings slid off as we picked it up. This one is best eaten with a knife and fork, just like they do in Italy!
The flavor of the cheese and sauce were excellent but the crust was kind of a soupy mess and felt like more of an afterthought. The pizza was nothing but crumbs in after a few minutes and we headed to pay at the kitchen counter. By the time we left the line was closer to 20 people, so be prepared for a potential wait here.
Connor's Grade: 9 out of 10
Next up was the new(ish) kid on the block, and by new I mean it started in 1996. But, when all of your competition is from the roaring twenties you are still the tween of the group. I was curious about this one because the pizza looked a bit different in the pictures I saw online. More like an oval than a circle and the crust looked a bit more Grandma Style vs New Haven Pizza style.
I guess it depends on what you order because our pizza looked like a round New Haven style pizza through and through. It even came out on the baking pan and wax paper like everywhere else, which is an interest touch to the area. This pie was cut more in the square form, or long rectangles, versus the triangle cut we are used to. A ToP Facebook member said this is how it should be cut. I could see this helping with the floppy crusts with how thin the pizza is. The old establishments cut it in triangles for some reason though.
I thought this pizza plated the best and was the most photogenetic, if that is a thing for pizza. It was much easier to eat because everything stayed attached when you picked it up. The undercarraige was still a bit on the droopy side when picking it up, and it missed a bit of the smokiness of the others since BAR uses a gas oven. Overall it had good flavor and a pretty good crust, but nothing that had a wow factor like the cheese and sauce at Modern. I will say this had the best ambiance and the most personable service of any of the locations. Plus they had their own beer, so that is a plus in my book!
Connor's Grade: 8.7 out of 10
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
We were starting to feel it a bit at this point but headed over to Wooster Street and Frank Pepe. The plan had been to hit Sally's Apizza first but there was a line out the door and we found parking closer to Frank Pepe. This is the oldest of the locations we went to, opening in 1925, and there are actually two locations right next to each other.
There is one in a big, store front building. The signage is much more noticeable on this building as well and where most people will head. In the back of the parking lot next to the store front option is a secondary, overflow location. This is also where most of the to go orders are picked up. The story is Frank Pepe ended up splitting off from his partner back in the day and started his own location right next door. The partner renamed their original pizza location The Spot and this is the smaller location in the parking lot. Years later Frank bought that location from his old partner and now uses both. I believe during the week only the smaller, original location is open.
If you have a choice, I would pick the larger location on the street. It had more ambiance to it and you could see them making the pizza in the coal fired oven. I thought that was pretty neat and this was my favorite dining room of the three older locations.
You could taste the difference in the coal fired oven in the crust. It gave it an extra kick to the pizza overall I thought. The crust was also pretty manageable and you were able to eat it with your hands. The cheese and sauce were nothing special, but the peperoni did have a nice snap of flavor to it.
Connor's Grade: 8 out of 10
The final stop on our New Haven pizza guide tour was Sally's Apizza. It is conveniently located just down Wooster Street from Frank Pepe. We took the quick walk down the street from Frank's, past a little park that may be a prime time take out spot with little kids, and grabbed one of the last tables open.
Sally's is a pizza dive for lack of a better word. It is a no frills, no atmosphere type of place and all about the pizza. It started back in 1938 and has the traditional coal fired brick oven. Many people told me they were cash only but they did take credit cards when we were there. I am not sure if this is a recent change or been around for a while now.
I will say the service was slowest, and most indifferent here. While the other 3 were faster than expected this was on the slow side compared to any other pizza place. The lack of atmosphere didn't help with the wait either.
Admittedly, we were pretty stuffed by this point and the wait was working against us. As we sat there, I was wondering if we were going to be able to eat much more then a slice each. When it finally came out it was the most charred of the 4 pizzas. It was also the only one we could actually hold up without the flop happening. This is good with me cause I love a crispy pie.
Connor dove in and ended up eating half the pie. He kept saying how much he really liked their peperoni. That was probably because it was the old world peperoni style we are used to here around Detroit.
Connor's Grade: 9 out of 10
My New Haven Pizza Grades
I have gone back and forth on this quite a bit since our trip. I loved aspects of each pizza place and didn't love things at every place as well. If I were to break it down by categories here is how I would do it:
- Best Cheese: Modern
- Best Sauce: Modern
- Best Peperoni: Sally's
- Best Crust: Frank Pepe
- Best Cook: Sally's
- Best Atmosphere: BAR
- Best Service: BAR
I couldn't really say which pizza I liked best overall. I think Modern had the best flavor but it was also a sloppy mess when you went to eat it. The undercarriage was a miss and made us resort to eating with a fork and knife. I loved Frank's crust, amazing flavor, but the cheese and sauce were underwhelming. Sally's peperoni were the best of the bunch but it was a bit light on the sauce, cheese and lacked punch overall. BAR wasn't great in any one thing but it was probably the most complete all around. One noticeable area of weakness was the lack of the coal and brick oven flavor.
If I had to pick one of the four to transport to my town I would go with BAR hands down. So, I guess that is my winner? It is because of the total package versus just the pizza though. It had an amazing atmosphere, great service and a really solid pizza. I will have to try their mashed potato pizza next time I am in town.
How Did ToP Stack Up?
After our trip I posted a picture of each pizza in the ToP Facebook group and told people to vote on their favorite. This was totally based on looks and no one knew which pizza was for which place. Here is how that shook out:
- BAR – 19 likes
- Frank Pepe – 15 likes
- Modern – 14 likes
- Sally's – 7 likes
Is New Haven A Pizza Mecca?
This whole trip was centered around answering the question, is New Haven a pizza mecca? I can say that it has a lot of good pizza places in close proximity to each other. But, so does New York and some other places. I may even prefer the crunchier eat-ability of a New York style pie versus New Haven. The coal flavor does add something special though.
What I can say for sure is that I don't regret the trip and think it is a worthwhile one for pizza lovers. I wish we would have had time to stay in the area, break up the eating a bit and even mix in a couple of different options. The one thing I know for sure, my night would finish at BAR!
As far as the best pizza I have had. I would have to give that to my boy Fredi The Pizza Man in Melvindale, MI. He does a New York style pizza but I actually prefer his tavern style. It is thinner than New York style, much like New Haven, and still packs a crunch. He is a master with the dough which keeps it light and airy but still has a great flavor to it. If you are in the Detroit area check it out. Tavern style with peperoni and baked in basil is my favorite around.
New Haven Pizza Guide: ToP Thoughts
The great thing about pizza tasting is it is subjective. I could love one place and you may hate it. It all depends on how you like your pizza cooked, the style you eat, what is important to you when eating it. You could go to New Haven and have a completely different ranking, I know Connor and I did. That is what makes this such a fun trip. Hopefully you take a bigger crew so you aren't stuffing down as much pizza as we did!
Fun fact: we ate pizza for every meal on that trip, including a cold pizza breakfast. It was so wrong that it just felt right!
No one said eating pizza all day was easy, but someone has got to do it!