New Haven Pizza: The History of Wooster Square via food

Standing in a long line and waiting for food may not be anyone’s favorite thing to do. But if you’re standing outside either Frank Pepe’s or Sally’s Apizza, the two famous pizzerias in New Haven, you can feel the anticipation in the air, making you even more hungry and excited. Located in Wooster Square, these two restaurants can make anyone proud to be a resident of New Haven, of being able to boast about the thin, crunchy and yet-so-light New England style pizza. With a rich history, a walk down this neighborhood is bound to be more than just a foodie’s paradise.

Anthony Riccio explains that at the beginning of the twentieth century, Wooster Square was home to many wealthy aristocrats and merchants from Ireland, Poland, Lithuania and so on. The influx of Italian immigrants, especially from Amalfi, at the turn of the century, changed the composition of the neighborhood. This had a lasting impact on the neighborhood, on the history of Italian Americans in New Haven, and naturally, on the food sold in New England.

In a conversation with Pino, owner of the grocery store P & M Orange Street Market, I asked how the restaurants in Wooster Square had changed over the years. His reply, which many other Italian-Americans in the neighborhood have also echoed, was, “Some of them are exactly the same, especially the pizza places – Pepe’s, Sally’s. In fact I went to Pepe’s last month and they might have gotten better. Maybe it’s because the oven just cooks better when it gets old. Even Libby’s, it’s always been the same. But you know, Ferucci’s – that always wasn’t there. There used to be this Cavalier’s Market over there – it was owned by 2 brothers – they had the best sausages I had ever eaten! And my grandmother shopped there 5 days in a week. But then they got old, one of the brothers got cancer and died. So they just sold the place.”

Reminiscing about his childhood, he further told me about festivals that would take place on Wooster Street until the 90s. “When I was a child, Wooster Street would be blocked during such festivals, no traffic could go through. People would just be on the street selling pizza, fried dough, Italian ice. There’d be Italian music playing in the background. And then there would be a stage at the end of the street, there would be a different band every night. And this would last a week.”

Frank Pepe’s was born out of this changing composition of Wooster Square that began at the turn of the previous century. Established in 1925, its claim-to-fame is its coal-fired brick oven that they still use to make their pizzas. One of their most loved pizzas is the white clam pizza (which unfortunately, I cannot comment on in an unbiased manner, since I’m not a fan of seafood).

Frank Pepe’s, Wooster Street, New Haven

When Frank Pepe first began selling his ‘tomato pies’ on Wooster Street in the early 1920s, the only varieties were plain and marinara. Riccio, in a brilliantly-research oral history of Italian-American community in the city, recreates the memory of how Frank Pepe finally saved enough money to buy a wagon, and then started selling his ‘tomato pies’ from that.

Later on, Pepe invented the ‘white clam pie’ which contained olive oil, oregano, grated cheese, chopped garlic, and fresh littleneck clams

The famous white clam pizza at Frank Pepe’s, New Haven (Photo courtesy:http://theilladelph.blogspot.com/2009/08/will-stephen-starrs-pizza-restaurant.html)

My personal favorite, the ‘summer’, is a tomato, basil, mozzarella and roasted garlic pizza that is only available for a few months in a year.

The ‘summer’ at Frank Pepe’s – tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and roasted garlic.

The legacy of Frank Pepe’s continues. Many have included the restaurant in their list of must-eats while on a road trip  (Frank Pepe’s is really close to I-95). In 2009, The Guardian declared the restaurant as the ‘best place to have pizza in the world’.

The title of the best pizza on the earth however, might be hotly disputed by those whose allegiance lies with Sally’s Apizza. In 1938, Sal Consiglio, a nephew of Frank Pepe, started his own pizzeria, Sally’s, in a bakery building on Wooster Street. My allegiances however lie with Frank Pepe’s because even though Sally’s might be just as delicious, their service does leave a lot to be desired. For a longer history of Sally’s, check out this link, and do try out the mozzarella tomato pie (my favorite toppings being onions, peppers and mushrooms)

Sally’s Apizza, Wooster Street, New Haven

So drop by Wooster Street the next time you’re in New Haven, or just driving by Connecticut. And in case you don’t have time to wait in a line, doesn’t mean you don’t try out the famous New Haven pizza at all. Drive over to Modern Apizza, or Bar, which does a mean mashed potato-bacon pizza (and this is coming from someone who doesn’t even like pork or bacon!)

And for those who might be historically inclined, do check out Douglas Rae’s 2003 City: Urbanism and its End and Anthony V. Riccio’s 2006 The Italian American Experience in New Haven, especially the chapter titled ‘Meat, Markets, Pastry Shops, Bakeries and Pizzerias’. Happy eating and reading!

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