SPT Class Trip - New Haven

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From left: Jared, Miriam, Colin, Joe, Scott (I am not in this photo)

Every month or so, Team SPT gets together for a serious info-session so we can sharpen our collective pizza edge. August’s trip was a no-brainer once I found out pizza guides Miriam and Joe had never been to New Haven, CT. Our tours happen in NYC but cover as much of the pizza spectrum as possible. Rather than sit them down at SPTHQ for a slideshow of the various apizza locations in and around Wooster Street, we piled into the car and made the short drive up I-95. This is our story.

Because of our Saturday tour schedule, we were unable to leave Manhattan until about 3PM. That worked out just fine because Sally’s Apizza doesn’t open until 5PM, so we arrived just on time to join the line at exactly 4:30. Sally’s has the most abbreviated schedule of all the pizzerias in New Haven, so we knew we had to hit it with more precision than the other places. Five of us drove up in my sweet 2004 Nissan Sentra: SPT tour guides Miriam and Joe, guide-in-training Jared and Joe’s husband Scott. We met up with New Haven tour guide and historian Colin Caplan, our spirit guide through the context of each pizzeria and how the city itself impacted the dish’s local variation. He also cleared something up for me: Why do they call it apizza in New Haven? Apparently the Italian population of New Haven is from Amalfi and their dialect includes the term apizza (pronounced ah-beetz). Thanks Colin!

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The profile of Sally’s Apizza reveals their oven!

Before we even joined the line outside the pizzeria, I showed Miriam and Joe the building’s profile, which tells a great deal about what’s going on inside. Sally’s uses a coal-fired oven, which was added after the building’s construction. You can see here that the 3-4 story building drops to a single story extension that ends with a tall chimney. That extension is the oven. Coal ovens are large and burn in such a way that the coal gets loaded into the front and exhaust escapes out the back. It’s hard to see this in New York because the buildings are built so close together. New Haven has space, so you can stand in the parking lot and look at a piece of architecture that reveals something about historic pizza technology!

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But we didn’t spend all our time in the parking lot. Once inside, we ordered two small pies: one regular (no cheese) and one with mozzarella (mutz). The second was probably my favorite of the entire trip so check it out of you’re looking for one stop in New Haven. The interior is amazing, with a mix of “here are some old photos and articles about us since we opened in 1938” and “we don’t redecorate or clean” that’s both charming and alarming (ie the bathroom). I love this place for all its charm and, of course, for its excellent and honest pizza.

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Our next stop was Frank Pepe's, the oldest remaining New Haven pizzeria. Pepe's has two locations right next to each other. The main building is the one everybody goes to, so there's always a long line. The other building - to the left of the main space and set back into the parking lot - is the original bakery Pepe worked at before opening his own place (Colin, correct me if I'm wrong about that) and was at one point a rival pizzeria but now owned by the Pepe family. I usually go to the main building, so this was my first time at The Spot (the former name of this pizza location, although not officially called that anymore). I'd taken photos through the windows but never had the chance to actually go inside!

The pizza was identical to that from the main space of Pepe’s. We had a regular mozzarella pie and the famous white clam pie. Both were excellent, but our group wasn’t all about the clams. That’s fine, more for me!

The journey continued to Modern Apizza, possibly my favorite in New Haven. It opened in 1936 - two years before Sally’s - but has changed hands and names since then. Much to our dismay, Modern was closed for their annual vacation. Watch out for August, Italians love to take a couple weeks off so it could be a mess for your pizza voyage. I regret not looking into this before we went but all turned out OK because we had time to hit Bar, a more recent addition to the New Haven pizza scene.

Bar opened about 18 years ago and it’s a huge brewpub / pizza joint that makes an updated version of New Haven apizza. The place is SO DANG HIP it was almost a 2 hour wait for the pizza, so we got it faster by just taking it to go. We took the pie back to my car and set up shop on the hood.

Along came a lovely couple that had just come from setting up for a friend’s wedding. They asked where they could find a slice of pizza in the area and we all squealed. They could not have approached a better crew. Sadly, there aren’t really any good slice shops in the area so we said the best option is to do what we did and hit up Bar. They looked so sad, it was really heart-breaking. So we invited them to join us! Without missing a beat Mrs Random grabbed a slice and Mr Random was close behind.

Pizza is the ultimate food of friendship. It’s both personal and communal at the same time and that’s what brought this entire group of pizza fans together in the first place. This moment truly defined the entire trip!

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Us with the Van Der Beeks. WHAT?!?!

Our new friends were so lovely and of all the random things they could have said, they hit us with a real doozy. “Have you ever heard of James Van Der Beek? We’re his parents!” Yup. So that happened. They had a passerby take this photo and emailed it to me the next day. SO IT WASN’T ALL JUST A DREAM!

We finished up, said farewell and moved along to our return trip down I-95. It was late enough that traffic was light, so we cruised swiftly along the gentle glide of the highway. Only one stop remained in our path: Colony Grill in Stamford, CT. This place is a 1930s Irish pub that started doing pizza somewhere after WWII. It’s a thin pan pizza with cheese all the way out to the edge (it even burns a bit!!!!) and we had to have it as a nightcap.

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Half sausage, all hot oil at Colony.

We did a classic order of a small pie with hot oil on the whole thing and sausage on half. The hot oil is a must here so don’t leave Colony without it! It’s a Serrano pepper-infused oil and it is delightful, especially when matched with chunks of sausage. This was a crowd favorite for sure and I’m glad we made the stop.

And so our journey came to an end as we returned to New York City filled with new-found knowledge and bellies filled with delicious pizza.

Electric Oven vs Wood-Fired Brick Oven

I just found this photo I took of two identical margherita pizzas baked in different ovens at a pizzeria called 900 Degrees (RIP) in the West Village. The one on the left baked for 5 minutes and 33 seconds in a brick-lined electric deck oven, the one on the right baked for 1 minute and 24 seconds in a wood-fired brick oven.

Judging by these photos, the wood-fired pie looks way better. The lower temperature electric oven caused the fresh mozzarella to break down before the crust completely baked. You can see why pizza makers switched to low-moisture mozzarella when deck ovens became standard (besides the fact that they had a longer shelf life). The crust on the right looks more even and the cheese/sauce separation has remained intact.

But looks are only part of the picture — almost everyone on the tour that day preferred the taste of the pie on the left. BOOM!

Flying Pizza Oven at Sottocasa

New pizzerias are always exciting, but this one has a fun story that goes beyond the crust. Sottocasa opened just a couple weeks ago with pizzaiolo Luca Arrigoni at the helm. He obviously picked up some major skills from Keste on Bleecker Street, which is where he worked before splitting off to open his own spot.

Some friends and I tried a few pizzas and all were delightful. I especially liked the Reginella, with bright cherry tomatoes and creamy mozzarella di bufala. He also makes an excellent dessert pizza that builds on the popular Nutella filling with some marscapone and toasted almonds. The space is also quite lovely, with a real DIY vibe flowing from the decor. Apparently Luca & Co handled all of the handiwork themselves and it forges a real connection between the staff, food and space.

But I was most intrigued by Luca’s oven. It’s your usual story about thick brick wood-burning heat chamber imported directly from Italy, but the oven’s journey has a very unusual twist. Sottocasa is located in the ground floor of a brownstone near the corner of Atlantic Ave and Smith Street. The restaurant is recessed a few steps below street level but there are no visible obstructions that would prevent the oven from moving to its position near the back of the space. Yet the folks at Sottocasa couldn’t just roll the oven effortlessly across the floor and it’s the fault of the oven itself.

Sottocasa’s oven is a pre-built Acunto and it weighs just over two tons. That’s a bit much for old floors to handle, so Luca had to find another way to get the oven in place. Contrary to what anybody thought physically possible, the best course of action turned out to be lifting the oven over the three story building with a giant crane. That’s right - they lifted it off a flatbed, over the building, and lowered it into place in the back yard. Insane!


Check out this cool video Luca took of his oven being lifted into the clouds.

Remember that the oven is still too heavy to sit on the floor of the restaurant, so it’s actually living on a piece of the backyard. They had to build a special chamber around the oven to make it cohesive with the actual building space. This is exactly why so many old coal-fired ovens in NYC were built beyond the building lines of their respective properties. It’s so neat! Here were some photos to better illustrate what’s going on.


Sottocasa’s backyard with the oven-in-a-box visible through the glass.


Luca tending the oven.


Side view of the oven chamber.

Totally awesome! So not only is Sottocasa a worthy visit because of the pizza, but it also has a great oven story to accompany your meal. Check it out…

Sottocasa
298 Atlantic Ave (between Smith St & Hoyt St)
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 852-8758

Lombardi’s Restores Oven Interior

Most coal-fired pizza ovens require daily maintenance to keep their fuel burning evenly and the pizzas baking evenly. This doesn’t require much, merely a few fresh shovels of coal and a quick dusting of the oven floor. But Lombardi’s in Soho steps it up a notch with an annual multi-day shutdown, complete with brickwork and insulation fixes. Over the past few years, the oven has had interior issues due to its old age (the oven dates back to the late 1800’s) so a more thorough job was necessary this time around. The ceiling had become warped and misshapen, leading to an uneven heat across the hearth. The renovation restored what is likely the original arched oven ceiling shape. This curve allows for even heating and more efficient fuel consumption. Lombardi’s fired her up today and pies were coming out quite nicely for an oven that had been cold for days.

 

The picture on the left shows the interior of the oven as it was being repaired last year. Yes, that is me inside. Yes, the floor temperature was over 300 degrees F. Yes, I had a piece of plywood preventing me from touching the actual oven floor. No, I didn’t have a ton of room to move around. The picture on the right shows the newly redesigned arched ceiling, which allows for more even baking and plenty of room to crawl about!