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New Haven: the birthplace of American pizza

By Matt Wiegle

On July 9, 1988, two stories dominated the front page of the New Haven Register: first, Oliver North was going on trial for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal; second, Sally's Pizza on Wooster Street was celebrating its 50th anniversary. Since then, North has sunk into relative obscurity, having attempted in vain to gain office in the very government he tried to subvert. However, Sally's and its slightly older neighbor Pepe's remain positive icons by continuing their roles as the progenitors of American pizza and by having nothing whatsoever to do with foreign policy.

In the early years of the 20th century (the Pizza Legend goes) Frank Pepe immigrated to New Haven, where he created the first American pizza by putting tomatoes on top of old bake-shop bread. His creation was so successful that in 1925 Pepe opened his first pizzeria on Wooster Street. By 1938, business was booming, the whole family was involved, and Pepe's nephew Sal Consiglio split off and opened his own pizzeria, Sally's. Soon, Pepe had moved out of his original store, now called The Spot, and opened a larger restaurant. Sally's and Pepe's remain locked in their Wooster Street rivalry today, two blocks apart.

The pizza from both establishments is refreshingly thin and light. While chains like Pizza Hut have become increasingly obsessed with using cheese as stomach ballast, packing as much as possible into their pies, Sally's and Pepe's wisely demur. Pepe's pies look exactly like good oven-cooked pizza should: cheese sitting on top of but not dominating the sauce, with a flour-dusted crust framing the affair. They're as delicious as they look. Pizza from Sally's is even better. Arriving at the table in shapes that make equal distribution between dinner party members difficult, these pies have almost no visible crust—the toppings go to the edge. Their sauce is tangier than Pepe's and the slices are softer. It's a joy just to hold one and fold it in half. Even the mouth burns from a Sally's pizza taste good.

A charming sense of tradition inhabits Sally's as well as Pepe's. Sally's, for example, is furnished with brownish-yellow booths that set off its brownish-yellow walls, which makes everything inside look a bit like an old sepia-tone photograph. The Spot is adorned with old photos of Frank Pepe in a service uniform and in a chef's hat, posing in front of vast shelves of tomato sauce. He wears the same bemused yet glum expression in each picture, which suggests something of the guy's attitude toward either life in general, or the army and pizza-making in particular.

Wooster Street is a beautiful area that does New Haven proud, but the section that Yale students have to walk through to get there does not. Closer to home, there's Naples Pizza; if its tradition of pizza-making is not as rock-solid, its tradition of serving it within a more reasonable walking distance is. Cheap slices provide a good way for friends to pass an evening: talk, order a slice, talk, eat, talk, order a slice. There's a big TV, there's beer, and if Naples can't muster a defining personality, at least many personalities have left their mark. Naples' tables are filled with carved messages of all kinds, from the initials of couples who have probably since broken up to the scribbled names of sports teams who now suck. Some of the carvings are so deep that they may have taken decades to complete.

Modern Apizza is another excellent pizza place; although removed from both the Wooster Street area and central campus, it features glorious Sally's-esque pies that have won the New Haven Advocate Reader's Poll for two years running. Although the great food still means Modern is crowded at peak hours, it's much easier to get into than either of the Wooster twins.

While each of these places offers its proud traditions, XandO on Elm Street offers the tradition of stealing the other guy's idea and creating a corporate version. The chain coffee shop recently refashioned itself as a "coffeehouse and pizzeria," hiring a chef away from Pepe's to create its own brand of New Haven pizza. While it's good, XandO itself still feels like the set of a bad sitcom and looks uninhabitable.

When Sal Consiglio died, 2,000 people attended his wake and The New York Times ran a half-page "In Memoriam"; if XandO's guy bit the dust, the only turnout would be his hyena-like spawn, scrabbling over his corpse in an effort to get to the will. You can make the food, but you can't copy the love. Go to Wooster and feel some.

Photo of a Pepe's pie by John Yi.

Havens for pie lovers

founded 1934
$11.65 a pizza
874 State Street

founded 1968
$11.65 a pizza
90 Wall Street

founded 1925
$11.65 a pizza
157 Wooster Street

founded 1938
$14.00 a pizza
237 Wooster Street

founded 1996
$12.00 a pizza
338 Elm Street

founded 1977
$9.50 a pizza
228 York Street

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