By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2006 Gourmet Magazine
The new Haven Trinity of Pepe’s, Sally’s, and Modern is rightly exalted for crisp-crust brick-oven pies, but those long-standing shrines are not alone in the pizza-rich state of Connecticut. There are a handful of lesser-known contenders that deserve their place in the pie pantheon. The non-New Haven gems feature not only distinguished pizza but also such atypical amenities as friendly service and a staff that usually answers the phone (when the New Haven pizzerias are busy, the custom is to let it ring). Plus, you almost never have to wait in line to get a table.
“I wish I had some of that New Haven aura,” says Dan Letizia from behind the counter of his restaurant in a Norwalk strip mall wedged in among Wal-Mart, Staples, and Starbucks. The physical aura of Letizia’s Pizza, to the degree it has one, is that of a modest family-owned deli: walls decorated with heirloom photos of Uncle Joe (Dan’s grandfather), mementos of the Brooklyn Dodgers (Dan’s father’s favorite team), and a collage of hockey trading cards faded blue from exposure to sunlight. “I put up the cards because the store looked like a hospital room when we moved in,” he says. “I wanted people to have something to look at while they waited for their pizza.”
While the setting isn’t much, Letizia’s name is part of Northeast pizza history. Joe Letizia was one of the first in the region to serve it—as a weekend-only item—when he opened his restaurant down on Norwalk’s Wall Street in 1937. Well after his death, in 1962, Uncle Joe’s was still known as a source of fine red-sauce meals at rock-bottom prices. The family sold the old place in 1985, but today’s Letizia’s, opened by Dan in 1992, still offers baked ziti and manicotti, spaghetti with marinara, and hot parm grinders. Those things are fine, but with pizza this good, they’re immaterial.
As is true of New Haven’s greats, crust matters immensely at Letizia’s. Baked on a screen, then further toughened on the oven’s brick floor, it is medium-thin Neapolitan-style, more chewy than brittle, with a full, earthy taste. Traditional mozzarella and sauce—the same food-service brands the family has used since the beginning—meld into a creamy Italian-American slurry with veins of tomato tang. Add disks of pepperoni weeping oil into the mix and you have a mighty bite that is outrageously juicy. It is best consumed the New York City way, by pulling one triangular slice from the circle and folding it in half down the middle—the crust is pliable enough to bend, not break—creating a trough that holds everything like an open-top calzone.
The underside of the crust on a pizza from Carminuccio’s, in Newtown, can be a mouthwatering fright, the tawny dough smudged and blackened and speckled with crumbs. “Sometimes right after we clean the oven, customers get mad because their pizza has none of that good grit,” says Eddie Martino, who, with former partner David Kennedy, opened the pizzeria eight years ago in a yellow clapboard house that looks like anything but an Italian restaurant. Martino and Kennedy grew up in New Haven and knew splendid pizza from childhood, but their place is no New Haven wannabe. The ovens are common—no wood fire or brick floor—and they don’t use a screen to keep air flowing underneath. Yet the crust on a Carminuccio’s pizza, which is patted out to about two-thirds the thickness of a traditional Neapolitan pie, has such a sturdy crunch that you can hold a hot slice by the edge and the center will not wilt. Even with meat and vegetables on top, it stays firm from the perimeter almost to the point, and no matter what ingredients you get, topping slippage is rare. “Nobody wants a pizza where the cheese is floating in oil and the crust droops,” Martino says.
He tells us that New Haven—made sausage, strewn edge-to-edge in countless little pinches, is cooked and well drained of fat before a pie is assembled and baked, thus ensuring that the cheese stays cheesy and the crust dry. Vegetables are precooked in a convection oven, a process that not only saps crust-threatening moisture but also dramatically intensifies the flavor of such toppings as spinach, onions, and tomatoes. Garlic especially benefits from the process, each whole clove caramelized to its soft essence. Before learning how they are made, we would have sworn the brilliant flavor of the kitchen’s supple red pepper strips came from marinade and/or seasoning. But they are unadulterated, nothing but red peppers roasted to a sunny concentrate as vibrant as pumate. Combine the peppers with roasted garlic and sausage and you have a magisterial combo, one of the earth’s essential pizza-eating experiences.
Stamford’s Colony Grill wins our vote as the most unlikely source of excellent pizza. Opened as a speakeasy during Prohibition and run by Irishmen ever since, it is a neighborhood tavern in the shadow of I-95, where there isn’t much neighborhood left. Modern life seemingly has had scant effect here. A sign above the dining room door still advises “No Stags Allowed,” referring to the bygone policy of not allowing single men to walk from the bar into the room where respectable people have supper. The wood-paneled walls are decorated with hundreds of portraits of servicemen from decades past and black-and-white group photos commemorating moments of camaraderie among patrons and staff. Still a hangout where many come just for shots and beers and conversation, Colony’s elbow-bending personality was established by Eugene “Bobo” Bohannan, who bought the place in 1961 after having worked as a waiter since his discharge from the U.S. Navy after World War II. “He used to know everyone who came in,” says his son Gary James, who now runs it with his brother Jim Screwse. James notes that Bobo and Robert “Fitzy” Fitzmaurice, who was a waiter from 1946 to 2005, are the only two people who know the identity of every one of the portraits on the wall. “Guys come in with their kids to show them pictures of their fathers,” James says.
Pizza is the only food on the menu, available in one size, about a foot-and-a-half in diameter, with crust as thin as a saltine. Nobody recalls how the recipe was developed, sometime in the late 1940s, and no one will share its secrets. James says that the process of making dough begins very early every morning, about three hours after the bar closes at night. Aside from the wild crunch of their crust, Colony pizzas are known for sweet sausage made across the street at another neighborhood survivor, DeYulio’s Sausage Co., and for the optional topping called “hot oil”—peppery olive oil that imbues them with zest and lusciousness unlike any other.
Pizzas (generally one per person) arrive on age-dented metal trays along with paper plates so flimsy they are useless, except for when a waitress can’t find anything else to write on and uses the back as an emergency order pad. Each slice is crisp, and yet so sumptuously oily that your fingers are guaranteed to glisten, even if you forgo the wonderful hot oil. Postprandial wreckage on the table is a giddy bedlam of severely battered trays piled with countless balled-up and knotted paper napkins—the one essential utensil for eating a Colony Grill pizza.