Is New Haven the best pizza city?

Years ago, I had heard rumors that New Haven, Connecticut, has a claim to the title of best pizza city in America.

As a (former) New York City pizza snob it surprised and briefly pained me to find out that the rumors were true. Only briefly, because I'm delighted to find such fantastic, authentically traditional, delicious pizza.

Turns out New Haven has a storied pizza culture. I've read that it wasn't until after World War II, when American G.I.s who had been stationed in Italy returned to the U.S., that pizza started gaining mainstream, national popularity. Before that, pizza in America had been a niche ethnic food, mostly found in some Italian immigrant neighborhoods.

The first pizzeria in America is credited to Lombardi's, in NYC's Little Italy neighborhood, opening in 1905. But up in New Haven, another pizza world was blossoming in its Italian immigrant neighborhood, with a strong and proud tradition — mostly coal-burning ovens producing thin, crispy, chewy crusts, and simple, not overloaded ingredients — that continues to this day.

This is real-deal, old-school pizza.

New Haven pizza not only has top-rate classic-style Neopolitan pizzas, it also features its own invention: White Clam Pizza. As a purist, I might scoff at this concoction, but I absolutely love it. No mozzeralla, no tomato sauce, just perfect crust topped with a sprinkling of romano cheese, garlic, olive oil, and freshly shucked clams.

The first breakthrough pizzeria in New Haven was Frank Pepe Pizzeria, which opened in 1925. I was there over the weekend, and it was fantastic, as usual.

Here it is on a park bench: we often get Pepe's or Sally's pizza to-go and go eat it in nearby Wooster Square Park (rushing, because pizza is best piping hot). It was mandatory on this trip because we had our dog Otis with us.

Pizza made Frank so happy, they put his beaming face on every box.

There are actually now sixteen Pepe's locations, with the closest to my home in NYC in Yonkers, New York. I can't approach NYC from the north without thinking about stopping there. Also, the Yonkers restaurant has one of my favorite paintings of all time. I call it, "A Diminutive, Older Frank Pepe, Who Is Also a Giant, Much Larger Than a Boat, Ponders Pizza as He Looks at an Italian Bay."

As Philadelphia cheesesteak lovers have the Pat's and Geno's rivalry, New Haven has Pepe's and Sally's. Sally's is right down the block from Pepe's and is also excellent. Locals may argue which is better, and swear their loyalty to one or the other, but I don't have a dog in that fight. They're both great. We only got Pepe's on this trip because the wait for a pizza happened to be shorter.

Notice on Sally's sign that the pizza tradition in New Haven is so old, they have their own word for pizza: "Apizza," which is pronounced "a-peetz."

We recently expanded our New Haven experience beyond these two, and tried Zupparadi's Apizza, and it did not disappoint. This is the most family-oriented of the New Haven pizzerias. Our waitress was in the ownership lineage (a great-grandaughter-in-law of the founder? I forget exactly), and she had her young daughter, maybe ten years old, happily helping out.

Here's our Zuppardi's table: Living large: a regular pizza and a clam pizza and a Foxon Park birch beer, the New Haven apizza beverage of choice.

We've never tried Modern Apizza, ("modern" when it was named in 1944), which is also in the New Haven apizza pantheon, an egregious oversight we hope to rectify soon.

Here is a really good "Pizza Show" episode on New Haven pizza – its history and current players.