By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Frank Pepe’s

New Haven apizza is a world apart. But which legendary restaurant is the best?

I recently wrote about my visit to Sally’s Apizza in New Haven, the only one of the city’s three legendary pizza places I hadn’t been to. Well, last week I was back in New Haven — and I decided to revisit Frank Pepe’s and Modern Apizza so I could compare them without having to rely on years-old memories.

Pepe’s is the original. In my previous visits, I’d ordered what I usually order: a tomato-and-cheese pizza with sausage and mushrooms. It was good, but not as good as Modern’s. But my son convinced me that I was doing Pepe’s wrong, because the true Pepe’s experience is the white clam pizza. Well, I like clams and I like pizza, so even though I wasn’t crazy about the idea of putting the two together, it seemed like a reasonable proposition.

I started off with a Caesar salad that would have been quite good if it hadn’t been practically floating in dressing. There were two choices of red wine; I ordered the Chianti, which was more than serviceable, and waited for my pizza. I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed. The thin New Haven-style crust only had a little bit of cheese on it, which I’m guessing is the way it was supposed to be. It was as crispy as it was chewy. On top was a generous helping of minced clams and garlic.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who would have raved about it, but I was less than impressed. At least I can now say that I’ve had Pepe’s signature dish. But if I ever go back, I’ll order something else.

Just the very act of stepping into Modern Apizza was thrilling. I hadn’t been there in about seven years, and the anticipation was almost more than I could bear. Modern has a more expansive wine list than Pepe’s or Sally’s. I ordered a glass of Merlot. My waitress convinced me that the Caesar salad was enough for at least two people, so I ordered a garden salad that was drowning in Italian dressing. Not great.

But then the pizza arrived — a perfect combination of tomato sauce (not too much), a blend of cheeses, ground sausage and lots of mushrooms. It was pizza perfection, and it brought me back to my first visit about 10 years ago, when I sat outside on a hot July night. Recently I watched the documentary “Pizza, A Love Story,” and learned that non-natives tend to gravitate to Modern because they use more cheese than Pepe’s or Sally’s. That seems right to me.

That’s not the only way that Modern, which is close to the downtown, does things a little differently from its Wooster Square competitors. Pepe’s and Sally’s use coal-fired ovens; Modern uses oil. I don’t know that it makes any difference. All three make magnificent pizzas, thin, charred on the bottom, and unlike anything available elsewhere.

A lot of people will tell you that New Haven pizza is the best in the world. I don’t know about that. It is amazingly good. But we have wonderful pizza in Medford and environs as well; it’s just different. Sadly, I have no reason to go back to New Haven anytime soon. But when I do, I’ll head straight for Modern Apizza.

Completing my Holy Trinity of New Haven apizza landmarks with a trip to Sally’s

Now that’s apizza!

As any pizza aficionado knows, New Haven is home to the Holy Trinity of a certain type of pizza known as apizza (pronounced “a-beetz”) — thin and cooked very quickly in an ultra-hot oven, usually with charring on the bottom. Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s are in the Italian neighborhood of Wooster Square. The Modern is closer to downtown.

Despite traveling to New Haven for reporting trips on a number of occasions over the years, for some reason I had never made it to Sally’s. Well, I rectified that last Tuesday evening. I showed up around 7:30 and was told I’d have to wait about 20 minutes, which attests to the restaurant’s popularity. But then someone left, and I was seated almost immediately.

I began with a Caesar salad that arrived in a to-go package, which struck me as odd. I mean, I was right there. The dressing had not been mixed in, and it was so thick that I couldn’t really pour it — rather, it fell in glops on the romaine. The cheese was powdered rather than shaved. It wasn’t a bad salad, but I’ve had much better.

Next: The main event. I had asked for a small sausage and mushroom, but the order somehow got bollixed up and I ended up with a “medium,” which was surely enough for three people. It was an appealing-looking pie in the New Haven tradition, more oval than round, with lots of ground sausage to make up for the relative dearth of mushrooms. And it was delicious, thin and bursting with flavor.

My only criticism is personal — I like my pizza with a lot of cheese and not too much tomato sauce. What I got was a lot less cheesy than I would have liked. According to the Wiktionary, though, New Haven-style apizza is supposed to have “only a small amount of grated Parmesan cheese,” which means that Sally’s delivered the goods. By contrast, my memory of the Modern is that they’re generous with the cheese, which I recall as a zesty blend. I hope to go back in a few weeks.

My “medium” Sally’s pizza was so huge that I would have risked serious gastric distress if I’d eaten more than half. The server seemed stricken when I told him that I couldn’t take it with me since I was traveling by train. Sadly, I watched him take it away. In the interest of writing a complete review (gluttony was not the issue; oh no, not all), I ordered a cannoli pie for dessert. Like the Caesar salad, it was served in a to-go container. Unlike the salad, it was perfect.

I also ordered a glass of Sally’s red wine, served in a water glass. It was fine if unmemorable.

Overall, I’d say my trip to Sally’s was a success — although with the Modern and Pepe’s nearby, I doubt I’ll be back. The Modern remains my favorite, even though they use an oil-fired oven, unlike the coal ovens at Pepe’s and Sally’s. It almost seems like cheating, though it makes no difference to the pizza.

We’re lucky to have some great pizza places in Medford and Arlington, so I don’t feel especially deprived by not being able to go to the Modern every week. But New Haven apizza is truly something special.

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