Is New Haven the Pizza Capital of the U.S.? ‘They’re Outta Their Minds.’

May 25, 2024
Dining & Wine
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Salvatore Carlino knows what it takes to make the perfect New York slice: He grew up in his parents’ pizza shop, Papa Leone, in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, and now owns his own pizzeria, Lucia, with locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

So when a New York Times reporter called to inform him that a member of Congress planned to declare New Haven, Conn., and not New York City, the pizza capital of the United States on the House floor, Mr. Carlino’s response was swift.

“This has to be a prank call,” he said, insisting. Twice.

“Oh, no,” Frank Tuttolomondo, who owns Mama’s Too in Manhattan, said when he learned of the effort. “No way; they’re outta their minds.”

But in fact, Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut on Wednesday read a statement into the Congressional Record that declared New Haven to have “the best pizza in the country,” she said in a news release earlier this week. “It’s not even close.”

It keeps going. She will also call Connecticut “the pizza state.” Sorry, nutmeg.

Though the city’s chewy, charred pizza has long gained acclaim among pizza fans and locals, some in New York City, when informed of the planned declaration, said that it was no contest — their state was far more widely known as the home of the greatest pizza in the United States.

New Haven pizzerias have made the area “one of the most respected and recognized pizza meccas and destinations in the country,” the Congressional Record statement reads, adding that the family businesses have been “a foundational stone of our community and an economic driver for more than a century.”

Created by coal-fired brick ovens, New Haven’s signature dish is known as “apizza,” pronounced “ah-beetz,” with roots in Naples. The most famous pizzerias include Frank Pepe’s, established in 1925; Sally’s, which dates to 1938; and Modern Apizza, which dates back to 1934.

Together they are known locally as the Big Three, and their owners went to the Capitol on Wednesday, part of a delegation of more than 100 Connecticut pizza makers, legislators, veterans and community leaders on hand to witness what many of them described as a historic moment for New Haven pizza.

“New Haven and Connecticut have been an epicenter of expert pizza making for more than a century,” Colin Caplan, who leads New Haven pizza walking tours and co-produced a New Haven pizza documentary, said in a statement this week. “There’s a level of pizza alchemy taking place in this area surpassed by nowhere else.”

New Haven is home to more than 75 pizza-making establishments, according to Ms. DeLauro’s office. In comparison, a New York City Health Department database shows 1,610 pizza operations across the five boroughs.

While Ms. DeLauro’s statement was largely symbolic, the very thought of Connecticut doing anything better than New York struck a nerve among pizzaiolos and New Yorkers alike. This was particularly sensitive given that many believe New York City is home to the nation’s first pizzeria. The offices of New York City Council and the state both weighed in through their social media accounts.

Mr. Tuttolomondo, the Mama’s Too owner, said that he’s had New Haven style pizza once, but it was cold so he couldn’t give a fair review.

“For me, hands down, New York City is the number one pizza capital of the world,” he said. “You have every style here. You have Neapolitan guys doing Neapolitan pizza making better pizza than makers in Naples. From round to square, long to short, you have everything in this city.”

Still, Mr. Tuttolomondo said he recognized that pizza is a personal experience.

“Pizza in general, there’s nostalgia involved, there’s memories,” he said. “You could go to one place and it could be the best place in the world. If you had your first slice of pizza at Pizza Hut it could resonate with you in a certain way.”

Paul Giannone, who owns Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint, took a diplomatic approach.

“There is no capital,” he said. “Washington is a political town, and you’re talking to a pizza politician.”

While pizza styles are “a matter of taste,” he did add that New Haven isn’t even his favorite place for pizza in Connecticut. That would be Zuppardi’s, in neighboring West Haven, which makes a great fresh clam pie, he said.

“We got the best,” Victor Conde said outside of L & B Spumoni Gardens in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn on Tuesday. “It melts in your mouth. It’s always fresh. I’ve never had a bad slice here.”

Mr. Conde, who grew up nearby, summed up a general sentiment about the Connecticut designation felt by many New Yorkers: “Yeah no,” he said. “That’s crazy.”

Maggie DeMarco Mieles, whose father, Domenico DeMarco, opened Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn’s Midwood in 1965, said there were three things that always created controversy: religion, politics and pizza. Mr. DeMarco, who died in 2022, has godfather status among New York slice devotees, linking the cooking of Southern Italy and the gas-oven pie beloved by New Yorkers and tourists alike.

“I think my Dad would say, to each his own,” said Ms. Mieles, who now runs the pizzeria with her family.

For her, the best slice has the freshest ingredients, integrity behind a recipe and a great team behind the pie.

Mr. Carlino, the Lucia’s owner, went a step further. For him, the best New York slice is affordable; balanced in ingredients; light, airy and crispy — “and not in Connecticut.”

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