It seemed like the only way to reboot the Pizza Tour was to head north and try out the real heavy-hitters in New Haven. Often touted as the world’s best, New Haven-style pizza is in a world of it’s own, surrounded by local mythologies, mind numbingly un-Italian pronunciations, and cult-like followings not unlike that of Stamford’s own Colony Grill. Fortunately, we know that some landmark pizzerias don’t live up to the hype, and we were determined to see if the iconic Pepe’s was really any different.
Establishment. Driving up to Pepe’s, we got some immediate exposure to that hype by taking a look at the line that flooded out onto Wooster Street. After no less than a 30 minute wait on a fortunately temperate summer night outside the New Haven landmark, we were ushered into Pepe’s large but somehow still cramped dining room to our brass-numbered table (table 6 if you’re interested), promptly given menus, and left to our own devices to figure out what was good. Having done our homework, we swiftly picked out their famed white clam pie (without mozzarella) as well as a red-sauced mozzarella pizza (not “plain,” mind you), fearing the consequences of not knowing what we wanted by the time the evil waiter came around. Fortunately, our server was more than accommodating and we had nothing to worry about as they proceeded to throw our pizzas of choice into their double wide trailer-sized, coal-fired oven. What’s more, they also answer their phones, aren’t cash only, and managed to get those pizzas to us pretty good time, albeit while crudely stacking them atop one another en route to the table.
Pizza. We’re usually pretty hesitant to fall into the general consensus, but this truly is one good pizza. Pepe’s unique New Haven-style pie is founded on a extravagantly chewy and oven-charred crust that looks thin, but carries the character and bite of a robust thick crust, giving your mouth quite a workout all the while. Their red sauce is chunky and tangy, with hints of natural sweetness and a big, bold texture complemented by a near-perfect array of traditional Italian flavors and seasoning. Pepe’s uses a very smooth, stringy mozzarella, with a delightful snap and salty notes that complemented the red pie well, but certainly would have been overkill on the already salty white clam number. Speaking of which, our white clam pie was likewise packed with flavors and overwhelmingly so, revolving around a plentiful selection of the clammiest clams that ever clammed and a blatant smothering of incredibly fragrant garlic. The white sauce was barely noticeable underneath these unmistakable tastes, but as you can probably tell, this was likely for the better. The only knock on this pizza is the spastic way it’s cut into all sorts of shapes and sizes—big wedges, small wedges, strips, and the like—putting the traditional Greek “stupid square slice” method to shame for no apparent reason. While the white clam dynasty that seems to rule Wooster Street didn’t quite win us over (most of us thought the red pie was vastly superior), it’s clear why Pepe’s has such a following in New Haven and beyond.
The bottom line. Pepe’s has an utterly unique product that, as much as it pains us to say it, very much lives up to its hype. It’s also better than Colony.
Hits the Spot: 8.5/10
Large Cheese: $15.10 (18")