new haven pizza sunday.
We ate a lot of pizza on Sunday.
So after months of batting around the idea pretty much every time we’d meet up for an NYC pizza, Andrew and I finally got around to setting a date for our New Haven pizza trip. We had four places in mind: Frank Pepe’s, Sally’s and Modern Apizza were definite go-to spots, since they’re considered the exemplars of classic New Haven pizza; the fourth would be determined en route. So with a jetlagged Mark in tow, we zipped up 95 and made it to New Haven at 11am. On a Sunday. For pizza. The entire town was still quite asleep.
We’d all heard about Bar Pizza’s famed mashed potato pie, and since the place opened at 11:30, it was our first stop. Ordered a plain pie with cheese (New Haven’s “plain” pizzas are just tomato sauce and crust, so you have to ask for cheese as an extra topping) and a mashed potato pizza with bacon on one half. The cheese pie was good, with a bright sauce; really, nothing to write home about, though I worried that the actual cheese application would be a harbinger of things to come: a little heavy-handed, cheese-wise, and a touch saltier than I like. More on this later.
But oh my! That mashed potato pizza was really quite lovely, if not a proper pizza per se. The bacon, while good, actually overwhelmed the potato favor, which had a bit of nice garlic undertones. The crust was your typical bar pizza crust — thin, not-quite crackery, but closer to cracker than not in both texture and height; these pies were the anomalies, crust-wise, since the dough didn’t have what would prove to be a fairly common New Haven chewiness. As with the rest of the New Haven pies we would encounter, there also was not much cornicione to speak of.
Up next: Frank Pepe’s. I really wanted to like Pepe’s this time around, since the last (and only other) time I’d been there, we ordered a large half-cheese, half pepperoni and garlic pie, and I couldn’t get through more than a single slice. Too much cheese, to the point where I kept having to take some off, not only because there was too much, but because I wanted to confirm that there was actual sauce underneath. (I posted a picture of that pie here.) It was an incredibly disappointing pizza experience. I hoped that it was just a rare off-day at Pepe’s. And it seemed like it might have been: in advance of this past weekend’s trip, I’d gotten so many raves from friends near and far about Pepe’s (even my old college history professor chimed in with a rave review!), and how we had to order the clam pie to really experience the Pepe magic. So we ordered a medium cheese pie and a small clam pie and crossed our fingers.
Well … sigh. The pizzas weren’t terrible, but they also just did absolutely nothing for us. The sauce on the cheese pie was perhaps the best thing, but even then, it was completely overwhelmed by cheese. So. Much. Cheese. I couldn’t really gauge if the crust was any good, because, again, CHEESE. The clam pie faired better in this regard, since it was adorned with little more than fresh clams, a touch of lemon, and some olive oil and herbs. No cheese to get in the way of the potential magic. And yet, even so, the crust — crisp around the edges, with some chewiness in the middle — just wasn’t all that memorable. And the brininess of the clams got to be a bit much.
We left Pepe’s a little dejected. With nearly two hours to kill before the next pizza place, Modern Apizza, opened for the day, Mark succumbed to his post-China jetlag with a nap in the car, while Andrew and I sat in a nearby park and did the NY Times Sunday crossword. It was barely 1pm on a Sunday afternoon, and already we were wiped out.
To be sure, Andrew is doing his best not to look wiped out. The cup of coffee he’s holding probably helped.
I want to say that Modern Apizza changed everything around for us, but … nope. Bar Pizza and Frank Pepe’s pies were definitely pies that you could eat without a knife and fork. Modern Apizza had a thinner, floppier crust, and overall …. wetness … that made it incredibly difficult to eat, even with utensils. This was a soupy, gloppy pizza, with so much, yes, cheese, that it just kind of bummed me out. The sauce, from what I could tell, was pretty bland, though I guess it didn’t really matter since this was one of those pies where the sauce and cheese were just completely integrated. The sausage on the back half of the pizza was nice, though. And do New Haven pizzerias cut their pies into irregular thin slivers because the weight of the cheese would otherwise cause a normally-cut slice to be unmanageably floppy, with cheese sliding off this way and that?
So with an hour before Sally’s was to open, and our pizza’ing at a low, Mark went back to sleep and Andrew went to the park to read. The crossword was sort of pissing me off, but I suspect now that it was all the dairy that was making me grumpy. Dejection by dairy. We needed to find a way back to pizza exhuberance.
And then, just after 5pm and after a 30 minute wait in line, Sally’s opened its doors and we piled into a booth. After the last couple of spots, we were starting to fear cheese, so we ordered a small cheese pie and a medium tomato pie. It was only after our pies came out that we realized we should’ve reversed the order, maybe even gotten a large cheese pie instead (though the tomato pie was quite tasty). This, my friends, is how it is done. Welcome to Sally’s.
The small cheese pie above may not look like much, but sweet Jesus, that was a great pie. Mark’s been griping for ages now about how there’s no craveworthy pie in NYC (don’t get me started; he’s from Chicago and is very particular about his pizza. Again, don’t get me started). He took a bite of this pie and immediately declared that this was a pie he could crave. I was too busy marvelling at the balance between crispy-chewy and subtly salty crust, bright and tangy sauce, and nicely (and, compared to the rest of our New Haven pies, conservatively) applied cheese to utter anything other than a few groans of delight. As I recall, Andrew, sitting across from us in the booth, just kept nodding his head in approval, to no one in particular. Had we been a bit more on the ball, we should’ve immediately ordered a second cheese pie on the spot. (Though, given that it took 20 minutes for someone to take our order, and another 20 minutes before we got our drinks, and I think close to 40 minutes after that before our tomato pie came out, ordering another pie might have kept us there well after 9pm. Sally’s is not known for their service, both attitude and speed-wise. You are forewarned.)
We left Sally’s completely stuffed and satiated. If you need any more proof, here’s a blurry but absolutely telling photo of the inside of the trunk of our rental car.
Clockwise from top left: leftovers from Frank Pepe’s, Bar Pizza, and Modern Apizza. Yup: despite being the last stop on an incredibly filling day, we ate every last bite of our pies at Sally’s. We took this photo underneath a streetlight just down the block from Sally’s, which is just a couple of blocks away, on the same street, as Frank Pepe’s. As we drove down the street, past the long line snaking out of Pepe’s, my urge to roll down the window to tell everyone to go instead to Sally’s was tempered by our collective desire to let the Pepe’s fans remain deluded. Are we terrible people? Maybe. But you’d be terrible too, in order to keep the crowds away from pizza awesomeness. Sally’s is in my top 5 east coast pizzas, possibly top 3. Though we had to slog through a lot of cheese to get there, the weight wait was definitely worth it.