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Boola Boola Meets Mozzarella: Prized Pizza in New Haven

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.

Unfortunately, this pizza purgatory prompts a vicious cycle. Diners wait so long to get in, many order extra pies to take home. The additional pizzas clog the oven, slowing the already leisurely service and, ultimately, the line. And the 16-table dining room doesn't help: While Pepe's expanded and has two huge ovens, Sally's kept it cozy.

Both the wood-paneled walls and Flora, 83, enhance that mood. While Sally ran the place, he didn't allow more than three toppings -- "garbage pies," as son Bobby Consiglio calls them -- because they wouldn't cook right. When Flora took the reins, she relented. "We do it now because my mother doesn't like to say no to people," Bobby said. "If she has a weakness, it's her kindness."

It must run in the family. The night I visited, Bobby chased down a diner who had left her glasses, and later told a cashless young couple to just pay tomorrow. (You can get four toppings if you insist, but Sally's still doesn't accept plastic.) Sally's has little need to turn nonpayers into dishwashers anyhow, because the restaurant doesn't use plates. Between the huge metal platters and the tiny booths, there's just no room, so diners eat from the tray.

Thanks to its 700-degree coal-burning oven, Sally's crust is the star of its apizza. The pies' extremities are well done (read: burned) but delicious. "Some people will ask for a light crust -- and they enjoy it -- but it's really a half-raw pie," said Bobby, 57.

Outside Sally's, I overheard a waiting customer comment that Pepe's undercooks its dough. One could say the opposite about Sally's. Still, I devoured an entire pie at Sally's, and I've been known to scrape the slightest hint of black off my toast.

Sally's crust and cheese layers are a bit thinner than Pepe's, as is the pizza's flavor. But I'd still drive far out of my way to eat at either pizzeria -- even with the lines.

-- Jonathan Bloom

· Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (203-865-5762) is at 157 Wooster St. in New Haven. A pizza with sauce and mozzarella starts at $7.

· Sally's (203-624-5271) is at 237 Wooster St. A pizza with sauce and mozzarella starts at $5.40.

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