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New Haveners and Yale graduates alike size one another up with a handshake and a single question: What’s your favorite pizza place?
The answer can say a lot about a person.
A traditionalist might go for Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, the longtime pizza kingpin of New Haven, Conn. A no-frills-straight-shooter opts for Sally’s Apizza, the other staple on Wooster Street, in the heart of New Haven’s Little Italy. A low-key local may choose Modern Apizza, a relative newcomer to the pantheon.
But those are just the Big Three, so famous that they often run together: pepessallysmodern, said in a single word. There are other greats. Slice lovers hype up Ernie’s. Clam lovers praise Zuppardi’s, one city over. The fratty crowd lauds Bar, known for its mashed-potato-and-bacon pie. And farmers’ market folks like Next Door, off the main drag.
All to say, this city is serious about its pizza.
But in the past few years, New Haven’s pizza scene has changed. I noticed it immediately when I moved there in August to cover Connecticut for The New York Times. It had been five years since I last lived there, when I was a student at Yale.
In that time, something shifted. The lines seemed longer. The hype felt bigger. Even the Big Three seemed bigger. So a few weeks into the job, I set out to investigate the shift. My article on the city’s pizza scene, which was published last week, is an effort to explain what many people think is a moment of transition for the city.
In September, I took a pizza tour led by Colin Caplan, one of the city’s biggest pizza evangelists. (He seemed pleased to have a Times journalist come along.)
“Is this anyone’s first time having New Haven-style pizza?” he asked the dozen or so hungry guests on the tour as they waited for Pepe’s — the first pies of the day.
No, they said.
“Anyone’s first time here at a Pepe’s?” No again.
“Anyone’s first time here at New Haven Pepe’s?”
Finally, he got some nods. And that’s when I realized what the story was.
The pizza itself hadn’t changed: Many recipes are generations old and here to stay. Neither had the tourists, who have long stopped for lunch in this city, nestled in the crook of I-91 and I-95. It’s not even the signature clams. Those are still shucked fresh onto pies citywide, then served salty and chewy to pizza lovers in the know.
Now, New Haven’s pizza — once found only in New Haven — is available across the country as Pepe’s and Sally’s expand, and as other New Haven-style shops open in other cities. And in New Haven itself, it’s becoming more of a commodity. There’s pizza merch and pizza classes and pizza tours. It’s becoming a touristy thing, more than it ever has been. Some are delighted: Shouldn’t the city’s cuisine be something to celebrate?
But there are also critics.
They’re the die-hards, and they worry that if there’s New Haven-style pizza everywhere, tourists may not come to try the originals. Also, they told me, other cities that try to trademark their culture end up with tacky, stale monuments to their once-unique regionalism.
And some smaller pizzeria owners fear that they’ll be squeezed out by the expansions.
For now, New Haven still has its pizza diversity. And Mr. Caplan’s tour is meant to show it off. After we had gone through Italian American New Haven, he took us to Stop 2: Bar, in the heart of downtown.
Bar is beloved, at least to me. In my senior year, my friends and I hosted a graduation party there for our parents. During the tour, I got a beer that tasted like blueberry pie. (I don’t want to hear about it. It was good.)
Then, Mr. Caplan led our group through Yale’s campus toward Modern. There, I gave in and unbuttoned my jeans. By Sally’s, our last stop, I could take only a polite nibble.
Mr. Caplan ended the tour by asking for a vote. We had tried four of the greats. Now, we had to make some hard calls.
My peers chose Sally’s for best overall. Was that recency bias? True excellence? The servers hovering nearby as everyone cast their ballots?
Who knows. For now, I’ll keep my favorite to myself — at least in print.
But I’ll admit that I’m open to the expansions. I will always love the Pepe’s branch in Yonkers, N.Y., where I went for dinner the night I found out I was accepted into Yale and cried happy tears straight through my tomato pie.
But there really is something about going to the source.
Maybe it’s the way a hot, charred slice tastes on the dreary days that stretch from October through April in New Haven. Maybe it’s the lines — or the families in those lines. Maybe it really is the clams.
So next time you’re passing through the “greatest small city in America,” pull off the highway and have a slice. I promise you’ll get the hype.