By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1995 Gourmet Magazine
What Kentucky is to bourbon and Havana is to cigars, Connecticut is to pizza—the capital, where the benchmark is set and excellence assumed. Nowhere else on earth are there so many good places to eat pizza; why, it’s practically impossible to find a bad one between Greenwich and Mystic and from Long Island Sound to north of Hartford. The names of old reliable pizzerias roll off the tongue as easily as their pizzas please it: Bimonte’s Pizza Castle of Hamden, where chewy crusts make bread lovers weep for joy; Corky’s of East Hartford, where the choice includes four different thicknesses, from super thin to Sicilian, plus double-crusted calzone to die for; Bethel Pizza House; Palm Beach of New Haven; Roseland of Derby…. Ever since the two of us courted over pepperoni pies at Pizza House on Howe Street in New Haven a quarter century ago, we have spent a good part of the time savoring pizzas and debating which is best. The following places are five of our all-time favorites, Connecticut’s upper crust.
New Haven, where so many of the state’s Italian immigrants settled, is also where the pizza trail starts, at FRANK PEPE PIZZERIA NAPOLETANA on Wooster Street. Pepe’s is the daddy of ’em all, dating back to 1925, when Frank Pepe began selling “tomato pies” from a horse-drawn wagon in the neighborhood known as Little Italy. He often made himself pizzas that were closer to what epicures might call focaccia: broad, chewy bread sprinkled with olive oil and oregano, dotted with anchovy fillets or freshly shucked little-neck clams. Thus began the greatest pie in Connecticut, Pepe’s white clam pizza.
White clam pizza has become relatively popular elsewhere in Connecticut in the last few decades, but no one does it like Pepe’s. For one thing, the clams are fresh, not canned; small, tender little-necks are distributed across the pie along with just enough of their briny nectar to give the wafer-thin creation a divine ocean flavor. Another unusual thing is the scarcity of cheese. Pepe’s white clam pizza has no mozzarella at all and just a scattering of grated sharp Romano. The cheese, the clams, a salvo of spices and coarsely minced garlic, and a generous drizzle of oil do not cover the pie so much as they meld with it, creating an expanse of golden crust frosted with savory ingredients. The base of each slice has charcoal zest and bready crunch; the top is luscious, yet ethereal. This is pizza you want to eat all night, even when appetite is only a memory.
The crust itself is what makes Pepe’s pizzas the best of all. Cooked at an extremely high temperature on the brick floor of an oven that has been hot non-stop for nearly sixty years (except for a couple of weeks each fall, when Pepe’s closes for vacation), the crust is brittle—especially around its edges, which are gold and occasionally blistered black—and yet there is a profound resilience in every bite. The pizza men aren’t persnickety about scraping the oven floor at Pepe’s, so it is likely your pizza’s underside will be speckled with burned grains of semolina and maybe even blotched by an oil spill where another pizza leaked, all of which give the mottled oval a kind of reckless sex appeal that no tidy pie could ever match.
Because of this great crust, Pepe’s other kinds of pizzas are sublime, too. Mozzarella with onion is popular, as are the sloppy, more traditional configurations with tomato sauce, cheese, pepperoni, and sausage. Broccoli and spinach recently have been added to the kitchen’s repertoire; on a white pie, with mozzarella and garlic, they’re wonderful.
Just up the street from Pepe’s is SALLY’S APIZZA, which was opened in 1938 by Sal Consiglio, a nephew of Frank Pepe’s. New Haven’s pizzaphiles often debate whether Sally’s or Pepe’s is better, but we’re not so fussy. Whichever place we can get a table is fine with us (seats at both are maddeningly scarce at meal time), because Sally’s pizza, like Pepe’s, has that ineffable Wooster Street soul. In some ways, Sally’s is an even more soulful place than Pepe’s. It was, after all, Frank Sinatra’s favorite (there’s a picture on the wall of Sally’s brother Tony with the Chairman of the Board to prove it), and the late Sal and his wife, Flo, were mom-and-pop figures to generations of hungry New Havenites who basked in the way this kindly couple treated customers like old friends. Sally’s is best known for two specialty pizzas: fresh tomato pie (made only in summer) with thick circles of tomato, creamy mozzarella, garlic, and chopped basil; and broccoli rabe pie, heaped with bitter greens when they are available down at the Long Wharf whole-sale produce market.
At JENNIE’S PIZZERIA, which bills itself as Bridgeport’s oldest pizza restaurant (in business since 1935), the motto is, Taste proves quality. The pizza is thin-crusted, Neapolitan style. Choices range from a plain tomato pie, which is nothing but crisp crust spread with red sauce and sprinkled with herbs (with a handful of extra garlic, it’s swell), to an elaborate quattro stagioni (“four seasons”), a tour de force with artichoke hearts, roasted red bell peppers, mushrooms, and prosciutto. Jennie’s makes a munificent formaggio-and-pomodoro pie topped with fresh tomato slices, mozzarella, massive drifts of sweet ricotta cheese, and grated Romano; and there are two kinds of clam pizza: canned and fresh. We have never tried the former, but in the fresh clam version garlic is strewn everywhere, steamed soft underneath the mozzarella cheese, and the whole piquant affair is sprinkled with parsley. It probably seems like a strange combination if you’ve never had clam pizza before, but, once you develop a taste for it, it’s irresistible. We only rarely doll it up even further by ordering the fresh clam Casino pie, which adds bacon to the formula.
Jennie’s doesn’t look sixty years old. It started in another location, and the current operation resembles a small catering hall. There are plenty of seats (although the line to get in on weekend nights can stretch far out the door); there is a separate entrance for take-out service; and you select your meal from a giant Italian-American menu that includes all sorts of pastas, parmigianas, and piccatas. The arrival of the pizza at a table is a ceremonious occasion: It comes from the kitchen on a tall silvery pedestal, like a garlic-scented offering to the god of hunger.
Of all our favorite Connecticut pizzerias, JERRY’S PIZZA of Middletown is the most unlikely looking source of goodness. A little store in a great big shopping center, it resembles a thousand other quick eats outlets, but since 1968 Jerry Schiano has made it a mecca for pizza hounds. Mr. Schiano creates all kinds of fine thin-crust pizzas as well as hot oven sandwiches and spaghetti with red sauce; his triumph is a specialty he calls the white Sicilian. “You cannot say, ”I’m a little hungry, so maybe I’ll eat some,’ ” he explains. “You either like the white Sicilian or you do not. You got no choice, and you can’t be in the middle.”
What he means is that his white Sicilian is a pizza with a powerful personality, not for the faint of appetite or the timid-tongued grazer. It is a big, medium-thick pizza heaped with a mishmash of anchovies, garlic, parsley, oregano, and hot red pepper plus olive oil; and it is strong. Years ago we were invited to a Middletown soirée at which we feared we wouldn’t get enough to eat, so we stopped on the way for a white Sicilian at Jerry’s. Despite a chaser of breath mints, everybody at the party knew exactly where we had been.
A white Sicilian takes a full ninety minutes to prepare because Jerry Schiano is a stickler for making the dough just right. “It has to rise nice and slow,” he says. “I can’t work fast when I make a white Sicilian. If you want it, you call me an hour and a half ahead and I’ll start it for you.” The result is a crust that is, despite its heft, positively elegant: crunchy at the edges yet cream-soft within, and with a yeasty dignity that offsets the giddy topping. Just as Jerry Schiano takes awhile to make this pizza, we recommend you allow a good long time to savor it, then more time afterward to bask in its afterglow.
My mom and dad never ordered a pizza in their life,” recalls Bill Perrotti, proprietor of PERROTTI’S PIZZERIA & SANDWICH SHOP in Middlebury, about, five miles west of Waterbury. “They made it themselves, on Sundays, at home. My father had a gas oven in the basement, and, my grandparents being from Naples, it was the natural thing to do. Every weekend we ate pizzas, but they weren’t like the ones most people eat today. We didn’t put any mozzarella on them, just sliced tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and a little basil.” Young Mr. Perrotti, who went into the pizza business in 1988 when discharged from the service, will still make a plain tomato pie when a savvy customer requests it; in late summer, when local tomatoes are bright red and bursting with sunshiny flavor, it is a grand and classic thing to eat, and beautiful to look at. All the pizzas that he makes in the backroom kitchen of his sandwich shop have a refined, Old World look about them. Crust and topping appear perfectly balanced—robust but with an elegance that reveals the sure hand of a virtuoso Neapolitan pizza man. “When I was a kid, I learned some things at my uncle’s place in Oakville—P & M Lunch,” Perrotti says. “When I opened here, he was retired, but he came up from Florida to give me pointers.”
The restaurant Bill Perrotti began is modest, to say the least. Set a little off the main road, the building is easy to drive right past, and there’s not much in the way of amenities inside. The operation is pretty much self serve: If you want to sit at a table, you place your order at the counter, and when it is ready you carry it to the table on a paper plate. When you’re finished, you toss your trash into the big plastic garbage can in the dining room. A few antique advertisements and a Wild West show poster decorate the walls, and one huge caribou head hangs above the cigarette machine. “I’m trying to sell the caribou,” Mr. Perrotti said. “A friend got it in Canada, and, to tell you the truth, I am not too fond of it. I thought I had it sold to a customer who built a new house with a cathedral ceiling where it would fit, but then he brought his wife in to look at it. She said, `It’s me or the caribou.’ ”
You won’t spend a lot of time looking at decor here. At lunchtime, and through most of the afternoon, there are gorgeous cooked pizzas to behold when you walk in the door. Several varieties are displayed in glass cases, ready to be sold by the slice. On the lower shelves are thin-crusted ones: They are usually basic pies—mere tomato sauce and mozzarella sprinkled with oregano or with nuggets of sausage or wafers of pepperoni—although on occasion there will be thin slices available topped with fresh broccoli, clams, and even sheaves of eggplant parmigiana. You can eat all but the goopiest slices single-handed because the crust is so stiff. Cooked at 650 degrees Fahrenheit on the brick floor of the oven, these thin pizzas have a fine crunch around the edges, which are golden brown, and a nice supportive under side all the way to the center. The top of each broad triangle glistens with a faint veneer of olive oil, and the cheese—a savory blend of mozzarella and provolone—spread across the surface never oozes or causes the crust beneath it to turn soft. “A hot oven makes all the difference in a crust,” Bill Perrotti explains. “I learned that on Sundays, when my family made the pizzas. The best one was always the last one out. That’s because the oven was hottest.”
Above the big pans holding thin pizzas is a shelf with the day’s Sicilian-by-the-slice. It’s at least twice as thick and bready-textured, and its crust is a good chaw. Here, too, the cheese is used sparingly, serving as a creamy foil for the seasoned tomato sauce and the toppings, which can include bacon, meatballs, mushrooms, bell peppers, anchovies, olives, and broccoli. One slice of Sicilian pie—no bigger than an ordinary sandwich—is a hearty meal all by itself.
On the top shelf of ready-mades is “stromboli,” also known here as pizza bread. In New Haven it would be called calzone: dough folded over to enclose an array of ingredients and slit along the top so steam can escape and the whole affair can get good and chewy as it bakes. The final effect is a brawny wedge of food that feels tightly packed, as if a pizza has been condensed. “I think stromboli originally came from Philadelphia,” Bill Perrotti surmises. “We never ate it when we were growing up, but in the service I had a buddy from Philly who told me all about it. The classic way is with Genoa salami, pepperoni, mozzarella, roasted bell peppers, and onions.” Some days Perrotti’s stromboli contains mushrooms, sausage, or olives.
By evening a large portion of Perrotti’s business is whole pizzas to go. These include specialty pies topped with garlic and mozzarella, garlic and minced clams, sliced fresh tomatoes, or verdant heaps of spinach or broccoli. The dough for all of the pizzas, made from the basic recipe of flour, water, yeast, a sprinkle of salt, and just enough olive oil to soften it, is hand-stretched, which Bill Perrotti believes is the only proper way. It is possible, he says, to buy a machine that stamps the dough flat in a perfect circle, but such machines eliminate microscopic air bubbles, and it is these bubbles that give the crust a texture that is properly poised between crunch and chew. Although he learned how to make pizza as a child, Mr. Perrotti keeps up with technology and new developments by reading Pizza Today, a trade magazine in which he recently found an advertisement for synthetic dough—an inedible substance that pizza makers can pretend to twirl in the air to impress customers. There is no dough-twirling (synthetic or otherwise) at Bill Perrotti’s place, where pizzamaking is an art, not a game. “Restaurants like mine are going to be an endangered species,” he worries. “It’s too appealing for the kids to go to the chain pizzerias, where they buy one and get one free, or get a clown hat with their meal.”
Perrotti’s sure doesn’t feel like an endangered species. All day long, a variety of Middlebury folks come and go, occupying the eight stools at the short counter, helping themselves to coffee at the machine near the indoor phone booth, and carrying on communal conversations open to all who enter. In a tiny dining area, two booths and four small tables are occupied by a motley clientele that includes chattering students from nearby Westover Academy, burly workmen taking a break from their rounds, local gen-tleman farmers, and equestrians who ride over through the woods from the High Lonesome stable down the road. It is not unusual to arrive at Perrotti’s and find, tied to a ring on the porch outside, an old horse named Maggie waiting for her rider, Doreen Sobelewski. Doreen explains to us that Maggie, too, enjoys Perrotti’s pizza and stands patiently at the hitching post because she knows she’ll get some leftovers when Doreen is through. “Maggie prefers thin-crust pizza,” Doreen says. “Broccoli is her favorite topping, but she isn’t fussy.”
Jennie’s Pizzeria (new location)
Perrotti’s Pizzeria & Sandwich Shop (permanently closed)