This post has been updated, 12:55 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 2.
For several weeks now, the culinary team at Pete's New Haven Style Apizza has been experimenting with a 9-inch personal pizza at its Clarendon shop. It's a pie designed for single diners who want a specialty or custom-made round but don't have the appetite for the belly-busting sizes currently available at the local chain.
The results have been solid enough in Clarendon that Pete's rolled out the miniature pizzas at all four stores on Monday. Are these 9-inch rounds a smart business move — or an insult to the history of New Haven apizza, where the dough is often stretched into large and irregular shapes? To the Pete's crew, the pint-sized pies make sense to appease the solo diner who previously had a compromised experience.
"It's been received very well," says Thomas Marr, co-founder and executive chef of Pete's. Before, "if you're a single person, your options were to buy a very big pizza or individual slices."
To the customer who dines alone, both approaches have problems. Ordering only slices restricts diners to the six pizzas available on Pete's counter, including the four standard options (pepperoni, cheese, white clam and sausage with wild mushrooms) and the two that rotate weekly (a chef-driven vegetable pie and one of Pete's 20-plus specialty creations). The other approach forces the solo customer to purchase either a 14-inch or 18-inch round.
"For one person, that's a lot" of pizza, Marr says about the large pies. "Some people are okay with it because they'll take it home and have leftovers."
The trial run was positive at the three-year-old Clarendon location, where owners see plenty of single diners walk through the door. Marr estimates that 10 percent of the store's revenues came from sales of personal pizzas, even though Pete's never marketed the size. The 9-inch pies weren't even on the menu at the Arlington store; the lone advertising came courtesy of a few laminated signs.
This afternoon, I tried one the personal pizzas. It featured that same slightly springy, crisp-and-chewy crust (with toasted breadcrumbs on the bottom) that defines the pizzeria's approach to New Haven pie. My Wooster Square (broccoli rabe, hot sausage, Milano salami, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano) also proved more than I could handle for lunch. I was forcing myself to wolf down that final slice because, well, who wants to lug around a carryout box containing one sad, decaying slice of personal pizza?
But are these personalized pies a razz to New Haven's tradition for large, family-sized pizzas? I put the question to Ed Levine, the Serious Eats founder and author of "Pizza: A Slice of Heaven." The guy is a serious devotee of New Haven apizza. Levine e-mailed me to say:
"New Haven pies are supposed to be served on big rectangular metal trays cut into irregularly shaped slices, and are meant for sharing. New Haven pizzas bring people together. Sometimes families that don't really get along can come together over New Haven pizza. How can a dysfunctional family or any other group of folks for that matter come together over a bunch of personal pies. Pete's may be giving people what they want with personal pizzas, but that doesn't make it right."
I understand and appreciate Levine's perspective. The move by Pete's feels like one more concession to the gradual shift away from communal dinning, from the breaking of (flat)bread together for pleasure and bonding. It's perhaps even one more sign of the crumbling of the family unit itself. But I also know that almost all food and drink evolves. New Haven apizza itself evolved from Neapolitan pizza, which now zealously protects the Neapolitan brand with an association that mandates the rules for its ingredients, preparation and equipment.
Interestingly enough, pizza back in Naples tends to be in the 12-inch range, which Italian piemakers consider — yep, you guessed it — individual sized.
The 9-inch pie is now available at all four Pete's locations. A personal cheese pizza will cost $7. Additional toppings will run 75 cents each.