Back in the day, my family frequented a restaurant named The Brick Oven in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In thinking about this post, I believe that this restaurant's wood fired oven is where my fascination of cooking with fire began. Among a number of great Italian dinners, this restaurant produced the first slice of pizza I appreciated, and craved and loved. Alas, all good things must come to an end. The owners of The Brick Oven (Rachel and Carmine) wanted to own their space instead of rent so they sold the business and opened a more formal restaurant...in another town.
This past weekend, we loaded up the family truckster and headed to Connecticut to visit my mother. I had warned everyone that I wanted to go to New Haven for pizza. Normally, we just hit the Pepe's outpost in Fairfield and save ourselves an extra drive. At the outpost, we have had some pretty good pizza as well as some exceptional pizza. It was never bad, but it wasn't always great. After all, how bad can a white clam and bacon pizza be?
We drove down on Friday. While at a park giving the kids some time to stretch their legs, my mother and I talked about the old Brick Oven and decided to head over to their new place (Carmine's in Shelton, Connecticut) for dinner. It was great. We saw Rachel and Carmine and even after having not seen her for a few years, my mother was recognized immediately. I had a nice conversation with Carmine. He assured me I would be happy with owning a wood oven and offered to give me pointers once I had the oven. I plan on taking him up on it.
Here's the little pizza we got to go along with our meal.
While it isn't exactly how I remember it, the pizza was still damn good. Plus eating a slice of it was trip down memory lane. If I had any doubts in the Pizza Cognition Theory, this meal erased them. So while this unintentional pizza stop was more than I dreamed it could ever be, I had my heart set on eating some New Haven Apizza.
I think that America's best pizza resides in New Haven, CT. Deal with it.— Dave Chang (@davidchang) March 19, 2014
My plan was originally to drag everyone to Modern Apizza for lunch, visit a museum to kill time while we digested, and then go to the New Haven Frank Pepe's Apizza Napolitana to see how it compared to the Fairfield outpost. I didn't think I would be able to swing Sally's Apiza in there, maybe.
When my plan was disclosed to the kids, the immediately shot the museum down. I was actually looking forward to checking out the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, conveniently located about a mile from Modern Apizza. They had a what sounded like a pretty cool dinosaur egg exhibit. The girls were upset at having to postpone a visit to a park near my mother's place for a day, wanted nothing to do with a museum and wanted a different park. A quick google search located a Crossings-esque park a few miles in a different direction. Dun. Off we went.
First stop, Modern Apizza. The route the GPS wanted us to take involved a closed road. After a little "Recalculating, Recalculating" we were there.
We got there at noon and found a space in their relatively small lot. The restaurant opens at 11 and we were not the first ones there, but we didn't have to wait either. There was a line when we left around 1:00. We ordered three small pizzas - a clams casino, a half olive/half bacon (kids choice), and a veggie bomb hold the olives and cheese (my mom is vegan, it must skip a generation). With the order in, I brought the kids over to look at the oven and pizza making process. The beauty of places like this is that I am clearly not the first person to take out a camera a snap some pictures. Pizza nerds abound in New Haven. The pizza making crew can get a lot of pizza in that oven and they were impressive to watch. Not a lot of talking, just calm, steady pizza production.
We got our pizzas pretty quickly. The clams casino
The half bacon/half olive
and then the battery on the camera died so I don't have a picture of the veggie bomb. I should have pulled out my phone and taken a shot, but I was really more concerned with eating than photography. I would say these pizzas were very good and I would happily eat them regularly. But they were not amazing. The crust seemed a little soggy in the center of the pie so the great bit at the tip of a slice wasn't there. So, very tasty pizza at Modern, but nothing that is going to haunt my dreams. Hell, it couldn't have been bad, all that was left was one small slice of the veggie bomb.
After a short ride around the Yale campus, we headed over to Hannah's Dream Playground. The playground part was a lot like the Crossings, but there were also tennis courts (one was empty so we had a good softball catch in there), basketball courts, baseball fields with some games, and a nice bike path along Long Island Sound. I had jammed the kids bikes into the back of the family truckster so they had a nice ride (they just learned how to ride a little over a week ago). It was fun and by 4:00, I was ready to head over to Pepe's so we piled in and headed back downtown where I lucked into a spot on Wooster between Pepe's and Sally's.
Now, back in the late 80s, my brother lived on Wooster Street between Pepe's and Sally's. I had always preferred Pepe's and I would often call my brother, he'd call in a pizza order (that'll be about 90 minutes, kid), about half an hour later I'd drive up, we'd hang out a bit, then we'd go get the pizza. More often than not we were there before the pizza was ready. We'd watch it go into the box get sliced in the most bizarre pattern you've ever seen a pizza get sliced, and then head back to my brother's place to eat it. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to pick out the building, but once I was standing on the street, I knew which window was his. Here's the view from the entrance of the building looking towards Pepe's. Pepe's is that white sign just past the arch.
Here's the view looking back up the street directly into the blinding sun. That little gap in the cars by the light post is basically the entrance to Sally's. Location, location, location.
Arriving at Pepe's a little after 4:00, there was a short wait. Less than 10 minutes. If we were a party of two, it would have been less. When we left the wait would have been significantly longer. Once seated we ordered three more small pizzas - a white clam and bacon, a cheese with bacon (no black olives at Pepe's) and a half broccoli/onion - half cheese. Then I went off to look at the oven and pizza making. Just like at Modern, the pizza making is a calm, smooth, quiet process that steadily and quickly turns out a lot of pizza.
Here's what we got. White clam and bacon
Half broccoli/onion, half cheese
Again, these pizzas were pretty damn tasty. They were also noticeably different than Modern - texture, sauce, flavor of the crust - really different, which was a little surprising to me since it is such micro-regional style of pizza. As with Modern, these were very enjoyable but not mind blowingly great pizzas. Once again, we left a solitary slice and had it wrapped to go. While we were waiting for the check, I just had to get to Sally's. I mean, we were two blocks away. I had to get the hat trick. My wife came up with an amazing idea that perfectly humored my insanity. She'd wait and pay the bill while I went and ordered a Sally's pizza to-go. We'd meet up in the small park between Sally's and Pepe's. So the kids got the second park of the day and I set off for our 7th pizza of the day (8th in 24 hours).
I got lucky, because Sally's didn't open until 5:00, so the doors had only been open for about 30 minutes when I walked in the door. If you want to go, check the hours and bring cash. No credit cards.
Sally's is not as large or clean as I remember it being.There wasn't a line, but most of the tables were already filled. A few were still open. What really struck me was heat. When you walk into Sally's there are booths on both sides and an aisle up the middle. As you get closer to the back of the shop, the aisle makes a little jog and the shop gets narrower. At this exact spot, the air temperature goes up 50 degrees. It's like a weather front. There are a lot of people working there that were probably friends but seemed like family and they are joking with each other having a good time and churning out their pizzas. To be fair, the three guys mostly responsible for the actual pizza preparation were more serious than everyone else. And the guy loading the oven was wearing a winter hat. Plus everyone behind the counter has shuffle to their step. My guess is that a full out walk will will land you on your ass after you slipped on flour. Completely different than the other two shops. Pepe's and Modern were choreographed. Sally's was organized chaos. The very friendly staff made me think of a Pirate Ship Kitchen that Anthony Bourdain described in Kitchen Confidential. I wanted to hang out with these people. The hangover would be intense, but I bet the ride would be worth it. Here, take a look at the kitchen.
No shit, that guy in the last picture is wearing a winter hat. It is Death Valley in the summer hot where he is standing. In case you are a pizza nerd and was wondering, those sacks of flour are All Trumps (not that I was looking for any secrets or anything). I asked for a small cheese pizza and was told that it would be 25 minutes. Perfect. I watched a little bit, and then met up with everyone in the park. After about 10 minutes I went back and waited and watched some more. They add some oil and water to the top of the pies to keep the cheese from burning. You can see the steam coming off as soon as the pie gets in the oven.
I got my pizza and headed off to the park like a kid that just got a present and could wait to open it. Here's what we had
It was also good, but not great. Out of the 7 pies we had that day, it was my least favorite. But the pie has a ton of potential. If/when I return, it will not be for a plan cheese pie. I bet a different set of toppings would have been better. Here, we intentionally left one slice to be compared cold with all of the other single slices we collected in our journey.
So what did this pizza quest teach me? I wholeheartedly believe each of these three shops could produce a pizza so delicious it will make you do a double take. Unfortunately, this past Saturday none of them did. I also believe that the Pepe's outpost in Fairfield makes a pizza that is as good, if not better, than the original location in New Haven, which is surprising because I have only heard that the opposite is true. I also learned that I really want to be able to make pizza like Carmine. He taught his son, maybe he'd be willing to teach me too.
Sunday morning, we tried a slice from each pizzeria cold. Without knowing which slice came from which pizzeria, I picked Carmine's as my favorite leftover slice. The Pizza Cognition Theory strikes again.