Friday, May 4, 2012

New Haven Pizza Wars - some final thoughts

Seven weeks ago, I came to New Haven, CT for a short-term job. I quickly assimilated into my new collegiate culture (hooded sweatshirts! bad poetry! cheap beer!) but when I was unable to find any notable sweet pies to blog about, I turned to a different kind of pie - the pizza pie.

Pepe's apizza

Known for a very specific kind of Neapolitan pizza called the apizza, New Haven is home to a thinly crusted, cheese-less, fresh tomatoed, oven-baked delicacy. Chicago-style deep dish this is not. At it's thickest, an apizza measures less than an inch. Burned splotches on the crust are common. Cheese is considered a topping.

Sally's apizza

Before arriving in New Haven, I had never had an apizza. After doing some research for this project and reading the many testimonials of happy and satiated patrons on both Yelp and the restaurants' personal websites, I got really excited. Here I was, a frequent consumer of pizza for almost 30 years about to try a NEW type of pizza! The last time I was this animated over pizza was when they put the cheese in the crust sometime in the early 90's.

But here's the thing: after spending seven weeks eating apizzas, I realized that I'm just not a fan. Maybe it's my upbringing. Maybe I'm too much of a Midwestern at heart. Maybe I'm just too used to the greasy, cheesy mess the rest of the country calls a pizza. But while some of the apizzas I ordered were certainly tasty (and absolutely none were so bad there were rendered inedible), I was ultimately underwhelmed by the cuisine.

Modern apizza

In fact, the grocery-store-brand frozen pizza I'm munching on right now is tastier, was cheaper to buy, easier to obtain, and has more fresh toppings than any pizza I'd order in a restaurant because I added my own spinach, mushrooms and tomatos before I put it in the oven.

Nevertheless, I did spend a good part of the month of April eating, critiquing, and ranking four different apizzas - Abate'sPepe's, Sally's, and Modern - all located in New Haven, and all basically claiming to have the city's best pie.

Here's what I learned:

*Cheapest - Sally's about $1. After the total cost of a small, cheese and mushroom pizza with tax and tip, I spent between $12 and $12.50 at each of the restaurants.

*Longest wait - Sally's
     Granted, this is a little skewed. I patronized the other three restaurants early on weekdays in order to reduce wait-time, but Sally's is only open in the evenings. But even after arriving 45 minutes before the doors opened, I still had to wait a while for a table, and even then it took almost 40 minutes for my food to arrive once I finally ordered.

Waiting for a table at Sally's

*Best service - Modern
     The waitstaff was positively chipper during the entire duration of my meal, water arrived at the table within seconds of my request, my server checked on me once the pizza was delivered, and I never once got an annoyed look for being a solo diner.

*Worst service - Pepe's
     The waiter did pleasantly inquire about the book I was reading during my lunch (Erik Larson's In The Garden of Beasts, if you're curious), but the pizza was served most unceremoniously, my water was never refilled, no one asked if everything was ok, and it took forever to get the check and the bill.

*Best ambiance - Sally's
     The old pleather booths, wood-panelled walls, neon signs - walking into Sally's was like stepping onto the set of Empire Falls. Add to that the fact that Sally herself was there, greeting old friends and working the register, and you've got yourself a pretty great pizzeria.

*Best cheese - Modern
     I could actually taste the cheese on this apizza. As in, there was a thick enough layer of cheese for my taste buds to recognize that it was actually cheese

*Best sauce - Abate's
     Tangy. Sweet. Just how I like it.

*Best crust - Sally's
     A bit burnt, but overall thin and crispy and nice.

*Worst mushrooms - Modern
    They were canned. Really?

*Worst apizza - Pepe's
     I hate to crown a "worst-of" but I really did not like Pepe's pizza. The cheese was bland, the crust was burnt, and I don't even want to talk about the sauce. It was the only time during this project when I left a restaurant still hungry.

*Best apizza - Abate's
     The crust was not charred, the mushrooms were fresh, and the sauce was great.

Abate's apizza

Ultimately, I realize that the apizza is to New Haven what the cheesesteak is to Philly, chili is to Cincinnati, and the Long Island Iced Tea is to, well, Long Island - a loved treat that gives the city a little fame, a little lore, and a lot to live for.

And that's exactly the point of a famous dish. It's not that it's so culinarily perfect that it can't be replicated elsewhere or by others, but it utilizes local ingredients and traditions that showcase the best of a city and allows its citizens to have a little hometown pride for one of their own.

However - I'm headed home to Chicago this weekend to stand up in a friend's wedding, and after the BBQ being served at the reception (you heard me) and the hot dog I'm going to sober up with neatly consume while at the Cubs game (there's always next year...), the food I am most looking forward to eating is the pizza my family orders from Riggio's, right around the corner from our house.