We traveled to Connecticut with the goal of tasting legendary New Haven pizza at the source. Discover the New Haven pizzerias that you simply can’t miss when you travel to Connecticut.
Pizza lovers who travel to New Haven, Connecticut are transported to a time when America was a raging industrial center – a time when coal fired ovens the size of small trucks churned out pizzas by the hundreds to the hungry working masses.
The best New Haven pizzerias still use old-school pizza ovens. And why not? Those 14-foot deep ovens, some fired by blazing coal furnaces, can accommodate dozens of wide pies that are cooked with dark crisp edges and crunchy bottoms as is the pizza style in New Haven.
We got a front row view to the action during our trip to New Haven. We observed pizzaiolos, armed with pizza peels that seem more appropriate for a pole vault competition than a pizza parlor, fire up exquisite pies with charred caramelized edges using coal that glows bright orange.
Our trip was a two-day pizza extravaganza that we shared with our friends Matt and Marie. Together, we ate pizza for both lunch and dinner and even chowed down on historic burgers.
We tasted tomato pies that mimicked the halcyon days before pizza became an international phenomenon. We also ate pizzas topped with clams – a culinary relic related to the city’s prominence as a coastal fishing town.
We didn’t just eat pizza. We also took real-life photos and ranked the top New Haven pizzerias from first to worst. Keep reading to see our photos and rankings but first let us share a brief history of this fascinating pizza style.
Order New Haven pizzas from Goldbelly for a real-life taste of New Haven pies.
New Haven Pizza – A Brief History
Pizza isn’t just a globally popular food. The Italian food favorite is also an excellent vehicle for understanding history in general and food history in particular. As we learned during our multi-day pizza crawl, New Haven is no exception to this rule.
Located in coastal Connecticut, New Haven drew immigrants from all over the world during America’s great industrial period running 100 years from the mid 1800s to just after World War 2. In the early part of the 20th century, New Haven had up to 30,000 Italian residents – more than any other US city on a per capita basis.
Things were different in the days before supermarkets and pre-sliced bread. Italian bakers delivered freshly baked loaves to homes and boarding houses. But they didn’t just bake bread.
Those same bakers, many from Naples and smaller Campania towns like Salerno, Sorrento and Caiazzo where modern pizza has its roots, moved from Italy with a unique knowledge of pizza. It was only a matter of time before they starting baking pizza in New Haven.
The three most famous New Haven pizzerias – Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, Modern Apizza and Sally’s Apizza – all opened their original locations during this era in 1925, 1934 and 1938 respectively. Popular to this day, this pizzeria trio, sometimes referred to as New Haven’s pizza Holy Trinity, even inspired a documentary movie, Pizza A Love Story.
An Italian immigrant, Matteo Naclerio, started producing soda in East Haven at the same time that Italian immigrants were flexing their pizza muscles in New Haven. You can drink Naclerio’s Foxon soda at the pizza trinity during your visit. White birch is our favorite flavor though you may prefer another flavor like cream soda or root beer.
According to pizza historian Colin Caplan in his book Pizza in New Haven, the city was more famous for its pizza at the end of the 19th century than it was for being the home of Yale University. However, times changed after the 1950s.
Highways were built. Whole areas were destroyed and New Haven’s pizza history was nearly lost. Luckily, due to the perseverance of a few persistent pizzaiolos, New Haven retained its history as well as some of the same old-style pizza ovens which are still used today.
Our Favorite New Haven Pizza Shops
Our trip to Connecticut’s pizza paradise was inevitable once we realized that New Haven is a mere 80 miles from New York City. While that distance may have been daunting a century ago, it’s easily conquered today in a few different ways – car, Amtrak and Metro North.
Two days was just enough time for us to sample a variety of pizzas at the most famous New Haven pizza shops. We often ordered more than we could eat even with the assistance of our intrepid friends Matt and Marie who sacrificed their stomachs for our noble quest.
Together, we ate clam pizzas topped with bacon, tomato and mozzarella pies, fully loaded pies and the granddaddy of New Haven pizza – seemingly simple tomato pies.
New Haven wasn’t our first pizza rodeo. We’ve logged close to two months in Napoli over three separate trips. We’ve eaten what’s probably the world’s best pizza in Caiazzo as well as great pies in Rome, Bologna, Verona and all five NYC boroughs.
In Naples, pizzas are notable for their airiness, suppleness and ingredients grown in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. The New York pizza scene is more about slice shops, high quality toppings and big bubbly crusts. Rome has two main pizza styles – thin and crispy Pizza Romana and bakery-style Pizza al Taglio which is often often cut to order.
This was our first foray with New Haven pizza. We knew it was its own thing when a chatty server criticized a competitor’s pizza for its ‘floppiness’ – apparently a mortal sin in the Connecticut pizza world.
So what did we think about the pizza in New Haven?
In our somewhat educated opinions, we think that New Haven has a unique style and place in the dynamic pizza world. Its pies celebrate crunch and lift. Plus, we dig the sauciness as well as the unique selection of toppings offered at the city’s different pizzerias.
These are our favorite New Haven pizza shops and the ones you shouldn’t miss:
1. Sally’s Apizza
While Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana stands out as the first stop on our New Haven pizza crawl, Sally’s Apizza gets the nod as our favorite New Haven pizza shop. It’s not that Frank Pepe isn’t excellent – we just enjoyed our pizza experience at Sally’s Apizza a little bit more. Plus, we have a thing for pizzerias with a good backstory.
Salvatore Consiglio, also known as Sally, was no novice when he took the reins at his family’s pizza shop in 1938. His mother Filomena was involved as was his brother Tony who had relationships with a number of A-list celebrities, perhaps explaining why Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy, Jody Foster and Paul Simon have all eaten pizza at Sally’s Apizza over the years.
Here’s where things get interesting. Sally learned the pizza ropes from his uncle Frank. Yes, Frank Pepe was Sally’s uncle and the extended family’s two pizzerias are located on the same block.
Our visit at Sally’s Apizza started with a pleasant half-hour wait in an outdoor lot that’s been repurposed into a waiting area replete with wine and beer served on tap. However, the real show started when we entered the historic wood-paneled room that’s topped with imitation Tiffany lamps, each emblazoned with the word ‘pizza’ and decorated with little men flipping pizza pies.
Speaking of pies, we ordered four of them at Sally’s Apizza – two classic New Haven pies (a Tomato Sauce Pie and a Mozzarella and Tomato Sauce Pie) and two specialty pies (a Fresh Tomato White Pie and a Potato & Rosemary Special). We later regretted not ordering a clam pie. We’ll order one next time.
Discover your favorite when you order a Sally’s Apizza pizza sampler from Goldbelly to enjoy at home.
To us, Sally Apizza’s Mozzarella and Tomato Pie pie is what separates this shop from its neighbors. Though similar to a plain pizza, Sally’s version is far from plain with great pizza sauce and just the right amount of cheese.
As we lifted the wedge-sized slices off its metal sheet tray, we noted that they didn’t flop. Equally important, the pizza had a nice crunch and, while dark brown, its edges weren’t burned.
While this Tomato Sauce pie was solid with the similar attributes, we liked the one at Frank Pepe even more more. Perhaps Sally’s Apizza lost the edge by sprinkling their pie with Parmigiano instead of more biting Pecorino Romano.
Beyond the classics, we especially enjoyed Sally’s Fresh Tomato White Pie. The tanginess of its fresh tomato slices contrasted the cooked ingredients used in the pizzeria’s more classic pizzas. Olive oil provided a rich finish.
Save room for a slice of Cannoli Pie. Filled with sweet cannoli cream and topped with powered sugar, cocoa powder and chocolate chips, this luscious pie tasted like a dream and caused us to temporarily forget about our pizza mission.
The original Sally’s Appiza is located at 237 Wooster Street, New Haven, CT 06511, United States. The pizzeria is currently expanding within Connecticut and in Massachusetts.
2. Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
It was a no-brainer for us to eat pizza at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana first.
While pizza in New Haven didn’t originate at this near century-old shop, it’s where the town’s reputation for pizza became famous. No new kid on the block, the original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana opened on Wooster Street in 1925.
Pepe, an immigrant from Maiori on Italy’s Amalfi coast, started making pizzas out of necessity when baking bread for New Haven’s Italian immigrant community became overly competitive. Considering that the pizzeria now has multiple locations in multiple states, that necessity was fortuitous.
We’re delighted to confirm that Pepe’s original Wooster Street location still feels special. The pizza shop breathes history from it’s original bakery (now located in the pizzeria’s parking lot) to its booth-lined dining room and inside its SUV-sized oven.
Without doubt, the city of New Haven has changed a lot since the days of its immigrant factories and shipping ports. However, when we closed our eyes, we could feel the city’s pizza genesis. Even better, we could taste it when we bit into Frank Pepe’s Original Tomato Pie.
Pepe’s tomato pie is the best tomato pie we tasted in New Haven. It’s such a basic dish but Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana does it right. Its status as a pizza juggernaut allows the iconic pizzeria to specially import tomatoes from Italy. But importing great tomatoes is just a starting point.
Pepe’s tomato pie has the slightly (some would say overly) charred edge that’s a signature feature at New Haven pizza shops. Not only does its crust crunch with every bite, but Pepe also tops its tomato pies with just the right mix of tomato and Pecorino Romano cheese. The cheese’s salty, sheepy flavors combine perfectly with the pie’s sweet Italian cooked tomatoes.
But we didn’t just eat tomato pie at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana. We also tried two specialty pies – a White Clam Pizza and a Meatball and Ricotta pie.
Topped with fresh clams, grated Pecorino Romano, garlic, oregano and olive oil, Pepe’s iconic White Clam Pizza is a must for any New Haven Pizza crawl. Call us heretics but we didn’t love it. In fact, we preferred the clam pizza we later ate at Modern Apizza (see below).
Following a few online tips, we ordered a white clam pizza with bacon – a recurring combination in New Haven. Would it have been wrong to order clams on a red pie? Anchovies and tomatoes are a magical combo in Naples, so maybe clams and tomato sauce would work well in New Haven.
We also ordered a third pie, a decadent Meatball and Ricotta mashup. And what a pie it was!
The crusty platform was great, the cheese was rich and the sliced meatballs were flavorful and meaty. It was an utterly American pizza – the kind of big food we crave whenever we’re not in the states. No flash in the pan, this pizza was clearly the product of a pizza joint that created its own pizza rules and perfected them over decades.
Don’t leave Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana without taking a good look at the pizzeria’s unique coal pizza oven. It produces a mountain of pies using coals that glow as bright as the sun.
The original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana is located at 157 Wooster Street, New Haven, CT 06511, United States. The pizzeria has additional locations in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia.
Among the three prominent pizzas in New Haven, Modern Apizza may be the most unique. For starters, this pizzeria is located on State Street which is about a mile north of Sally’s and Pepe.
And, unlike the other two New Haven pizza trinity members which use coal ovens, Modern’s cavernous oven is powered by oil. That oven sets Modern’s pizza apart far beyond its geographical location.
The crust on Modern’s pizzas is a little airier – not airy to the level of a Neapolitan or even a New York pie – but the crusts have a definitive bubble. Perhaps this is because Modern bakes dough twice daily and lets it rest a little longer before baking.
These factors result in excellent pizza but does that make Modern’s version better? We have to say that, in the pure New Haven style, Sally’s and Pepe have a slight edge. But don’t get us wrong. We’re fans of Modern’s denser crust that feels more alive as well as the quality of its toppings.
According to its website, Modern Apizza first started baking pies in its current East Rock neighborhood location at the end of the Second World War. While the pizzeria’s origins go back to 1934 and involve various owners and iterations, the current operation is rooted in a partnership between Nick Nuozzo and Louis Persano (along with his brothers).
After surviving years of change in New Haven, Modern Apizza was bought by William “Billy” Pustari in 1988. The pizzeria has thrived since then, solidifying its position in the city’s pizza trinity.
The name Modern was suggested by a neighbor in recognition of the pizzeria’s ‘new’ business arrangement.
We credit Modern for a level of creativity that lives up to its name.
This pizzeria offers classic New Haven pies with a twist. Its Clams Casino pizza, a white clam pie with bacon and peppers, is a pizza version of the baked seafood dish. Then there’s its ‘pump up the meat’ Italian Bomb pizza – a monster of pie topped with bacon, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onion, peppers and garlic.
We ordered both of these special pizzas along with two traditional pizzas, one plain and the other topped with mozzarella. While the Italian Bomb proved too much with its abbondanza of sausage chunks and crispy pepperoni discs, we’d happily eat Modern’s Clam Casino any day of the week. In fact, we preferred Modern’s multidimensional clam pie over Pepe’s version.
Walk the mile from Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana or Sally’s Appiza to Modern Apizza. You’ll appreciate the opportunity to burn off a few calories.
Modern Apizza is located at 874 State Street, New Haven, CT 06511, United States.
BAR isn’t a member of New Haven’s pizza trinity and it isn’t a dedicated pizzeria. However, we’re including the popular New Haven bar in our New Haven pizza guide for a few reasons.
First and most important, BAR uses an impressive brick oven pizza oven to produce pies worth eating. Second, it’s conveniently located across the street from Louis’ Lunch (see below) and a short walk from Yale University. Finally, true pizzaholics like us aren’t satisfied with just three stops on a pizza crawl.
Considering its loud music, not to mention its name, it’s no surprise that BAR started out as a bar and dance club when it originally opened in 1991. But BAR went big in 1995 when it added craft beer and pizza to its repertoire. And by big, we’re referring to BAR’s ginormous brick pizza oven and its comprehensive pizza menu.
Provided with ordering instructions, BAR’s menu is no joke. In addition to four house classics, two traditional pies and a handful of staff favorites, it includes no fewer than 35 topping options. Some of those toppings are typical while others like brisket and fresh little neck clams push the pizza envelope.
Then there’s the mashed potato topping that plays a starring role on BAR’s signature specialty pie – the Mashed Potato and Bacon pizza. Just like curiosity killed the cat, we couldn’t resist ordering the popular white pie topped with mozzarella, hand mashed potatoes and brick oven cooked bacon.
No doubt it was as an interesting pie and one worth trying. However, we preferred our red pie topped with mozzarella cheese and sausage. That simpler pizza reminded us of thin, crispy Pizza Romana pizzas we’ve previously eaten at pizzerias like Pizzeria Ostiense in Rome.
Check out BAR’s seasonal pies before you place your order. The bar/pizzeria was serving a Mexican Street Corn pie on the night of our visit.
BAR is located at 254 Crown Street, New Haven, CT 06511, United States.
While we fully understand the desire to exclusively eat pizza in New Haven, we also understand that approach might not work for people who aren’t as pizza-obsessed as us.
We recommend the following two New Haven food experiences if you’re one of those people:
Lunch at Louis’ Lunch
Apparently, Louis’ Lunch invented the modern hamburger sandwich in 1900 when founder Louis Lassen decided to place ground beef between two slices of bread to accommodate a customer in a hurry. It’s a great story – if it’s true.
Call us skeptics but we have our doubts.
Just like the Margherita Pizza’s origin story which involves Queen Margherita, the Louis’ Lunch origin story is dubious at best. Seriously, did the restaurant really use cheese sauce in 1900? And what about the commodity sliced white toast that surrounds each burger?
Whatever its real history may be, Louis’ Lunch justifies a visit.
Ordering a burger here is like a scene out of Seinfeld since there are specific rules that must be followed. However, the process is easy once you accept that the only available toppings are cheese, tomato and onions. (You’ll notice that ketchup, mustard and relish are not on this compact condiment list.) Also, fuggedaboutit if you even think about ordering fries.
Whether or not you’ll love the burger isn’t a given. It’s basically a large patty grilled in an antique flame broiling machine, served between toasted white bread and garnished with cheese and a choice of tomato or onion or both. You may love it and want to return for a repeat performance. As for us, one burger each was more than enough.
You can pay for your burger with either cash or a credit card.
Louis’ Lunch is located at 261 Crown St, New Haven, CT 06511, United States.
Breakfast at The Pantry
Open since 1987 and located a few blocks from Modern Apizza, The Pantry specializes in two of our favorite meals of the day – breakfast and brunch. Sorry lunch and dinner!
Unlike New Haven’s pizza trilogy and its hamburger haven, The Pantry isn’t famous nor does it serve a famous dish. However, we think The Pantry should be famous for its decadent Cinnamon Roll Pancake which is different from every other pancake we’ve ever eaten. But, then again, fame would likely change the local breakfast joint or at least make it more crowded.
Ordering at least one Cinnamon Roll Pancake is practically a must at The Pantry. We ordered one during our visit plus a blueberry waffle. Other options we considered included Omelettes, a Lox Scramble and Eggs Benedict.
Order a Fresh Fruit Plate or a Grapefruit Brulée if you want to save your carb intake for pizza. That being said, the Cinnamon Roll Pancake is special.
The Pantry is located at 2 Mechanic Street, New Haven, CT 06511, United States.
About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.