5 Takeaways from My New Haven (A)Pizza Pilgrimage

Sure, it rained all weekend. But the weather doesn't matter when you're having pizza for every meal.

Published June 24, 2021.

The weekend was not off to a good start.

I had driven down to New Haven, Connecticut, on a rainy Friday afternoon to start an important mission. My friend and I were going to spend Memorial Day weekend taste-testing the best New Haven–style apizza we could find. (That’s right—apizza. The a comes from the dialect of the Neapolitan immigrants who brought the pizza to New Haven.) Our itinerary included five famous pizzerias.

Thin, crispy, charred—New Haven apizza is a unique regional spin on the pizza pie, an evolution of the classic Neapolitan style. In my opinion as a native nutmegger, it’s THE state food of Connecticut. (I’m not the only person who holds that belief, but I’m still waiting for it to be made official.)

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After arriving in New Haven, our first stop had been Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (also known as Frank Pepe's)—maybe the biggest name in New Haven apizza. Large pie in hand, we returned to our weekend rental only for me to realize I had accidentally locked us out. In the rain.

After leaving a few frantic messages for the owner, we shrugged and figured there was no better time to get started. The thin, irregularly shaped slices of New Haven apizza are an ideal portable dinner when you find yourself sans table. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before we obtained the location of a spare key and we could enjoy our pizza indoors as well.

I am but a simple pizza enthusiast, but I do know that New Haven apizza is my favorite kind of pizza. It’s uniquely Connecticut, and one of the few things I’m willing to wait in the rain for. A wet, gray trip might not be the ideal long-weekend getaway, but pizza for every meal certainly helped. And I’d do it again, rain or shine.

If you’re planning on heading to New Haven to get some of the best pizza in the country, here are five things you should know.

1. Cheese Is a Topping, Not a Given

If you’re an out-of-towner, something you may not know is that cheese on a New Haven pizza is actually optional. At stalwarts like Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s Apizza, "mozzarella" versus "tomato" pie is a pretty critical decision, as I pointed out in line to a couple from Detroit who assumed they would get some sort of cheesy goodness regardless. If you’re looking for the absolute baseline, simplest New Haven apizza, I would recommend specifying "mootz"—unless you’re lactose intolerant.

pizzapizzeria in New Havenpizza and ovens
From left: Pizza with a view at BAR; the welcoming sign at one of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana's locations; the pizza ovens at Da Legna x Nolo.

2. It’s Charred, Not Burnt

The scorching-hot coal-fired ovens of New Haven pizza joints produce an awesome charred crust, without the steamed puffiness you might be used to seeing in a traditional Neapolitan-style pizza. To the untrained eye, this may appear burnt, but don’t turn your nose up at the char. The underside of the Sally’s pie was my favorite: perfectly crisped with delicious, charcoal-y pockets of flavor that were a great contrast to the sweet, herby sauce and toppings.

3. Not All New Haven Pizza Is the Same (and That's a Good Thing!)

Though New Haven apizza is a specific style, there's a lot of variation within this specific regional speciality. I am not the kind of person who can expertly pick out a dish’s ingredients—this is why I work in marketing at America’s Test Kitchen and not, you know, in the kitchen. But I will say I could definitely detect differences among the plethora of pizza sauces we sampled. The ideal “red” for me was herby and slightly sweet in order to cut through the mild mootz and charred crust. BAR’s pizza sauce really shined in this regard.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Mold

A confession: We did not sample Frank Pepe’s white clam pie, which is perhaps their most famous menu item (though trust me when I say their other pizzas are just as excellent). New Haven apizza may have a pretty agreed-upon set of characteristics, but don’t be afraid of ordering off the well-trodden path on your trip. The pie we ordered at Da Legna x Nolo might not fit the traditional definition of the style—I doubt brussels sprouts and caramelized onions pass muster with a purist—but it was delicious all the same. It was an out-of-left-field selection, but it was one of my favorite flavor combinations of the trip.

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From left: The pizza at Sally's Apizza; the Modern Apizza storefront; the bottom of a slice from Da Legna x Nolo.

5. Yes, It Makes Great Leftovers

Before I hit the road for the trip, I was given a strict set of instructions by my wife: Buy large pizzas, and pack Tupperware. The next-day quality of a pizza is a pretty important thing to consider in my mind. Whether it’s out of the refrigerator or off the counter because you forgot to put it in the refrigerator (oops), a good pizza can be measured by its half-life. When it comes to the quality of leftovers, the thin-and-crispy quotient of New Haven apizza shined. Our slices resisted the urge to get soggy or spongy, even a few days later.

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