Andrea/Cara here, feeling in a pizza state of mind today. (There is a reason for this, but honestly, does one really have to a have a specific reason? I mean, who doesn’t like pizza?) I’ve been spending time in New Haven, Connecticut recently, as I mentor freshmen students as they arrive for their first semester at college. I find it really rewarding to help students navigate such a huge change in life as they begin to decide on courses, extracurricular activities, and just how to adjust to roommates and living away from home. And I love the intellectual energy and excitement of a university town, with all its museums, libraries and cultural offerings. But in the spirit of full disclosure, I also love spending time in New Haven because it has the best pizza anywhere. Bar none.
A bold statement, you will say. Yes, it is, but I have a lot of muscle behind me. Frank Pepe’s legendary pizzeria, a New Haven icon founded in 1925, has been voted as making the world’s best pizza, and New Haven itself is considered a pizza capital of the world, as it large Italian community in the early 20th century quickly gave rise to other pizzerias. (If you’ve spent any time in New Haven, you are either a fierce Pepe’s fan or your loyalty lies with Sally’s , which was founded by Frank’s nephew. And I mean fierce. You don’t mix your slices.)
But more on New Haven pizza in a moment. First let’s take a quick look at the history of one of the quintessential comforts in the world! Various forms of flatbread have been around since ancient times. A perusal of “history of pizza” on Wikipedia reveals some very interesting tidbits: in the 6th century BC, the soldiers of Persian king Darius I are said to have baked flat bread topped with cheese and dates on their battle shields. (A tasty variation of beating swords into ploughshares!) Another suggestion for pizza's origins are that Roman soldiers copied the Jewish pizzarelle—kosher flat discs consumed during Passover—and added cheese and olive oil.
By the 16th century, Naples had developed a type of gallette flatbread the locals called “pizza.” It was humble fare for the poo, sold on the street. (Naples—and Neapolitan pizza—will loom large in modern pizza history) Over the years, its popularity grew as a local specialty. Records show that in 1807, there were 54 pizzerias registered in the city. (So we can be historically accurate if we want to have our Regency characters munching on pizza while taking the Grand Tour!)
By the 1840s, it had taken on an even broader appeal. Alexandre Dumas was known to have waxed poetic on the diversity of toppings (tomatoes, brought to Europe from the New World, had come into vogue as a topping, once people overcame their fear that they, like other varieties of the Nightshade family, were poisonous.) Another milestone in pizza history occurred in 1889, (though this may be apocryphal) when Raffaele Esposito, who worked at the Pizzeria di Pietro, baked three different types of pizza to honor the visit of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy to Naples. It’s said that the Queen liked the one with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil best, because it represented the colors of the Italian flag. And thus that style was named after her. (Purists in Naples insisted there are only two “real” toppings for pizza—the margherita style, as mentioned above or marinara, which is simply, tomato, oregano, garlic and olive oil.
Pizza came to the United States during the end of the 19th century, brought along with the wave of Italian immigrants. The first written reference to pizza in the U.S. was a 1906 mention in the Boston Journal. Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Trenton, NJ became hotspots for the new food arrival.
And of course, New Haven. Frank Pepe, who came from Naples, insisted on making his tomato pies in a coke-fired oven rather than wood-fired oven, as coke—and nowadays coal—produces a drier heat than wood, thus creating a crisp, chewy crust, with signature charred edges. All self-respecting New Haven pizzerias use coal—and if you want to sound like a real local, you call it what they do—apizza (pronounced ah-beets) not pizza. (That’s the traditional Neapolitan dialect, according to Pepe.) Pepe’s still makes its original tomato pie (no cheese.) And it lays claim to having invented the clam pizza.
Like many generations of Yale students, I had my first slice of Pepe’s pizza when I was 18. (I’ve never tried Sally’s! That would be heresy, even though the once-nasty rivalry has mellowed these days to a cheerful competition. I do, however, admit to having two other new favorite pizza places—DaLegna, on State Street, makes a divine sourdough crust, and Bar, a funky warehouse space right behind the Yale British Art Center, makes a very tasty pie, along with brewing its own craft beers. And there are plenty of other places that garner accolades—as I said New Haven is VERY proud of its "apizza"!
So what about you? Do you like pizza? (Don’t worry, we won’t throw rotten tomatoes at you if you admit that it’s not to your taste) What’s your favorite topping? And y do you have a favorite local pizzeria? Please share!
All photos courtesy of Pepe's Pizzeria; all color photos by Diana Delucia