This July, Tasting Table celebrates the great state of American food.
New Haven, Connecticut: the Greatest Small City in America.
Okay, so New Havenites gave themselves the label, and "GSCIA" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. New Haven is known for many things—Yale University, its (declining!) crime rate, a major Metro North station—but with a storied history and rich culinary landscape to match, Elm City more than deserves the title.
New Haven was the first planned city (well before Manhattan got its act together), and like many college towns, you'll find everything from Ethiopian to fast-casual Indian, but its American staples—like the history itself—are New Haven's backbone.
Most food lovers immediately think of New Haven's pizza scene—namely the 90-year-old standout Pepe's, which consistently tops national best-of lists. And they should. Ben Conniff, a Yale graduate, founding member of NYC chain Luke's Lobster and a lifelong seafood fanatic, thinks Pepe's white clam pizza is "one of, if not the, greatest foods in the world." It's worth noting that Pepe's, along with neighboring Sally's, West Haven's Zuppardi's and more local stops, don't serve pizza: They serve "apizza" (pronounced "ah-beetz"). It can be red (from San Marzano tomatoes) or white ("mootz" is never assumed; this is primarily a canvas for clams).
But it's not all about the beloved, set-in-their-ways joints anymore. Kitchen ZINC's artisan "seed to plate" pizza can be ordered gluten free, a request that the original Frank Pepe would probably loathe. And there's BAR, whose mashed potato pie (with the option for bacon) has amassed a cult following. It may serve cocktails in pint glasses, brew its own beer in giant vats and transform into a raging nightclub after hours, but you can find clam pizza at BAR, too.
The clams are a vestige of the town's location along the Long Island Sound, but many of the old-school seafood joints aren't what they used to be. Instead, chefs like Bun Lai of Miya's Sushi are rebooting New Haven's seafood scene: Don't go to the James Beard-nominated spot expecting mounds of farmed salmon or tuna. The menu, which reads like a book, features fish that's lower on the food chain and thus more ecologically responsible. Lai believes Americans can counter the effects of overfishing by diversifying their palates, and his efforts are paying off—students, locals and tourists flock to the restaurant to get a taste of his ever-evolving menu.
Photo: Courtesy of Louis' Lunch
Seafood and pizza aside, we can't talk about New Haven without discussing the hamburger: It was allegedly created at Louis' Lunch, a small brick building with medium-rare burgers and bright red shutters to match. The patty is a blend of five cuts and is invariably served on white bread. Its renown has led to myriad TV appearances, but the fame has never gone to their heads—things are done pretty much the same way they were back in 1895 (even the cast-iron grills predate the 1900s). The sole burger alternatives are potato chips, potato salad and a slice of homemade pie.
It may sound simple, but never forget rule No. 1 of Louis' Lunch: Don't ask for ketchup. You'll be kicked around the corner to modern gastropub Prime 16, where not only can you get all the ketchup you want on your eight-ounce all-natural Angus beef patty, but you can also opt for maple bourbon mustard and chipotle mayo. They're not from a hundred-year-old recipe, but Prime 16's burgers are special in their own right.
The city's classics may be getting cheffed up to delicious effect, making New Haven the ultimate destination for solid American food. But the originals are rooted to the town through century-old coal ovens and iron grills, and they're not going anywhere either.
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