Boola Boola Meets Mozzarella: Prized Pizza in New Haven

Hank Koelle transfers a pizza from coal-fired oven to tray at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana.
Hank Koelle transfers a pizza from coal-fired oven to tray at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana. (Photos By Jonathan Bloom)
Sunday, March 18, 2007

New Haven, Conn., home to a certain Ivy League school, has one eternal question: Pepe's or Sally's? Getting into Yale ain't easy, but gaining admission to those popular (and crowded) pizzerias sometimes seems just as difficult.

I'd heard plenty about the city's pizza, and I was intrigued when Ed Levine, who spent a year devouring pies for his book "Pizza: Slice of Heaven" (Universe, 2005), ranked two New Haven joints among America's top 10 pizzerias. But then I discovered that the two pizza places -- Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (a.k.a. Pepe's) and Sally's Apizza (the original Italian way of saying pizza, pronounced "a-beets") -- are a few blocks apart on Wooster Street.

Pen in hand, belt loosened, I set out to discover which pizzeria was better, or at least worth the lines that unfailingly wind outside each restaurant. If Levine could narrow it down to 10 nationwide, I could choose between two on the same tree-lined street.

Wooster Street is the lifeblood of New Haven's Little (perhaps Tiny) Italy, with establishments such as Libby's Italian Pastry Shop and Casa Nostra Old World Italian Cuisine. Across the tracks from Yale, what used to be an all-family neighborhood now has some grad students and, gulp, yuppies. Yet with its red, green and white street-lamp signs and the aroma of melted mozzarella in the air, it's still a warm, happy place.

Pepe's has all the credentials. In the vestibule, the Zagat's plaque and James Beard Foundation award lend a sense of gravitas. Equally impressive, '80s TV star "ALF" declared the pizza "Out of this world" on a signed photo.

Though foodies revere both Pepe's and Sally's clam pizza, I kept the comparison simple and stuck with the basics: tomato and mozzarella with a root beer. At Pepe's, though, you have to ask for mozzarella specifically or else you'll get a tomato pie with just a little grated parmesan. Also, you'll be better understood if you call it "mootz-a-rell."

Pepe's has high ceilings and walls filled with black-and-white photos acknowledging its pizza past. "We haven't changed anything since my grandfather started making pizzas in 1925," said Genevieve Bimonte, one of Pepe's seven grandchildren/owners. "The coal-fired oven was grandfathered into Connecticut law."

A waitress delivered my oblong pizza on a metal tray lined with wax paper. After an initial bite, "pure" and "fresh" were the fourth and fifth words that came to mind. The first three? "More!" The pie's simplicity -- unadorned crushed tomatoes dotted with slices of mozzarella -- just works.

Patrons have a full view of the show inside the open kitchen, as bakers stoke the 600- to 700degree coal fire that provides the oven's oomph. The crust is charred around the edges, but not burnt. The only imperfection in my pie was the pooling of oil that made it a tad soft in the center.

Afterward I asked Bimonte what she thinks of Sally's, and she told me she has never eaten there. It can't be because it's too far away.

A relative newcomer to Wooster Street, Sally's opened a few blocks west of Pepe's in 1938. Salvatore "Sally" Consiglio worked at his Uncle Frank Pepe's shop before running his own operation for more than 60 years. When he died in 1989, Sally's wife, Flora, and their three children took over.

Judging from the lines, they've upheld Sally's standards. After waiting outside for an hour on a 38-degree night (and on a Tuesday at that), I realized just how lucky I'd been to waltz into Pepe's for lunch.

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