Pizza may have been invented for Italy’s Queen Margherita in 1889, and first served in America at the still-open Lombardi’s on New York’s Spring Street in 1905, but it was perfected in Connecticut. Specifically in the New Haven of the 1930’s—a haven for Neapolitan immigrants fleeing Southern Italy’s stagnant economy to work in the city’s Candee Rubber and J.B. Sargent Co. factories—before emanating out to the rest of the state. Notable for its impossibly thin yet sturdy charred crust, apizza (obligatory phonetic pronunciation: ahbeetz), in local parlance, is the result of brick ovens fired with compartmentalized coal, as opposed to the wood used in Naples, because the coal was cheaper and easier to obtain in the New World. Moisture is sealed off from the intense blast so dough doesn’t get soggy. The resulting pies have a crisp bottom layer, yet maintain a chewy layer above. They tend to feature minimal sauce and cheese so as not to gild the lily.
The broad strokes of the oft-told local tale are that Neapolitan immigrant Frank Pepe invented New Haven apizza in his bakery, and everyone else is an imitator. That’s a bit simplistic. There have long been outstanding spots in New Haven and throughout Connecticut, legitimately challenging Pepe’s supremacy. Devotees of each have been making passionate cases for their favorite for decades. The debate ends now. This is the definitive ranking of the best New Haven pizza.
6. COLONY GRILL
Founded in 1935, Stamford’s Colony Grill is an Irish joint known for their adroitness with peppers—their cherry pepper pizza alone is worth the 45-minute Metro North ride from New York. Even their impossibly thin and cheesy plains are graced with a trademark solitary stinger. And all pies are served with or without a condimental “hot oil.”
5. ZUPPARDI’S APIZZA
Right outside of New Haven and competing with its bigger city brethren since 1934, Zup’s channels the nearby Long Island Sound with its trademark spicy shrimp casino pie: muzz, hot cherry peppers, bacon, and garlic. It contends with Sally’s for best signage too.
4. MODERN APIZZA
Of the three best pizza joints in New Haven city limits, Modern is the most popular with locals and least touristy. Conventionally round, their pies closely resemble one of New York’s finer examples, albeit with a perceptibly thinner crust. Go with sausage here—it’s perfectly crumbled, none of that sliced nonsense. Pair your pie with an ice-cold pitcher of Elm City Pilsner and sink into a blissful coma.
White pies are a New Haven tradition. Some places it means no sauce, at Pepe’s it means no cheese either. They’re best ordered with perfectly chopped clams, another New Haven innovation. Always pair their clam pie with bacon, the addition of which is one of two key in-the-know moves. The other is heading across the parking lot to their longtime offshoot The Spot if the line is too long at Pepe’s. The Pepe’s crust is as thin as a Carr’s cracker yet effortlessly holds up the ingredients—the mark of the breed. Drink a liter bottle of Foxon Park, a family-owned local soda manufacturer and just as much a reason to visit New Haven as the pizza. Their orange soda is juicy and heavily carbonated, like a nonalcoholic Hi-C mimosa. “White” birch beer is clear, not red like the inferior Pennsylvania Dutch version, and tastes like freshly fallen forest snow.
2. SALLY’S APIZZA
The best pizza in New Haven. Ignore the fact that their Foxon Park is on tap and focus on the vintage rec-room wood paneling, stained glass and neon signage, the signed photo of Frank Sinatra, and Camelot-era pencil drawing JFK while waiting for your metal baking sheet covered in wax paper. No plates. The perfect specimen of the apizza form, a Sally’s pie is organically circular verging on amoeban, with a baseball-card thin crust topped by a mattress of fluffy dough, and a sauce, halfway between savory and sweet, that’s in perfect proportional harmony to both the crust and the just-enough gooey “muzz.”
Harry Rufleth apprenticed at Pepe’s in 1988. The following year he staked his own claim, first with a takeout spot in Hartford, and later at proper restaurants with convoluted ownership histories nearby, where he perfected his modified recipes. The key to his puffy, bubbly crusts is dough with a high-yeast, low-gluten content—but the rest is secret. Eye-size pepperoni is burnt at the edges and curls slightly to capture tiny pools of flavorful oil, the bacon is so thin it’s translucent, and both the sausage—precooked to render the fat, same as with the pepperoni and bacon—and lean hamburger are crumbled. All of these goes well with Harry’s chopped, well-spaced thimbles of jalapeño, which are equally as good on their own, as is the standard plain. The Whalers are gone but Harry’s lives on as the best pizza in the state. So maybe the world?