What Makes New Haven-Style Pizza So Unique?

If you can see beyond the long line of Nutmeggers complaining about the I-95 traffic when you walk into a New Haven-style apizza like Sally's or Pepe's, the first thing you'll notice is the roaring infernos that even the underworld's ruler would envy inside the brick oven behind the counter. Pizzas slide in and out of the hearth from the peel of a ninja-quick paisano whose skin must be calloused-over like a rhinoceros.

To provide context, Eater explains a large influx of southern Italian immigrants came to New Haven, Connecticut, at the beginning of the 20th century. Some started pie shops, calling their product "apizza" (pronounced ah-beets) due to their dialect.

When it comes to making New Haven's apizza, the oven is extremely hot and the pizzas are cooked quickly. You might be asking yourself, "Isn't that a Neapolitan-style pizza?" Great catch! New Haven-style pizza is similar, but there are a few key characteristics that make them distinct and put apizza in a world of its own. The roots of both pizza styles are firmly from the south of Italy and Pepe's, the oldest pizza spot in New Haven, is still (perhaps confusingly) referred to as a "Pizzeria Napoletana." Frank Pepe, who founded the establishment in 1925, per the restaurant website, came to New Haven from Maori, Italy, located near Naples. It's unclear whether that title was a nod to his homeland or the style of pizza he was trying to make. In either case, his apizza and those that came after turned out very different.

Techniques and ingredients help New Haven-style pizza stand out

One crucial aspect that makes New Haven-style pizza stand out is the oven. Neapolitan pies require a wood-fired oven, while many other types of pizza — including Calabrian-style — use gas. In the early 20th century, coal was inexpensive and abundant, according to Eater, so New Haven pie shops adapted. This heat source provides the black char apizza is known for. You will notice a similar char on Neapolitan pies, but it's usually not quite as pronounced.

Another difference involves the toppings. New Haven pie shops are known for their particularly tart tomato sauce — and originally that was the only topping they had. As time went on, apizza evolved, but in a different direction from most other pizza styles. Mozzarella is standard when it comes to cheese, but apizza won't come with the topping unless stated on the menu or you specifically ask for it. The cheese featured on many New Haven pies (like Pepe's original tomato and all the pies at Modern, including those featuring mozzarella) is Pecorino Romano. Pecorino Romano is more aromatic and salty than mozzarella, which goes exceptionally well with one of apizza's signature toppings: clams.

A waterfront city along Connecticut's Long Island Sound, New Haven has a steady supply of good-quality shellfish. Fresh, cheap access to clams make them a favorite topping at classic apizza shops like Sally's and Pepe's. Though Pepe's is credited with inventing the unusual pie, both serve sauceless clam pies with garlic and herbs. Modern Apizza takes this dish to the next level with its Clams Casino pie, which adds bacon and peppers.

From the coal-fired ovens to the focus on fresh ingredients that break the norm, New Haven pizza is truly one of a kind.