The Complete Guide to New Haven Pizza

Get to know one of the world’s best pizza traditions as it nears its 100th anniversary.

<p>Rana Duzyol for the Washington Post / Getty Images</p>

Rana Duzyol for the Washington Post / Getty Images

It’s been 99 years since Frank Pepe and his wife, Filomena, opened Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana on Wooster Street in New Haven, Connecticut, establishing one of the best pizza traditions in the U.S. Pepe’s (as fans call the pizzeria) created New Haven-style apizza, which is pronounced ah-beets — one of the tradition’s many quirks. Apizza, with its gorgeously charred thin crust and unique toppings, boasts celebrity supporters from Paul Giamatti to Michael Bolton and has inspired imitators in locales as far-flung as Chicago, Oregon, and Tokyo.

The Holy Trinity

The legacy of New Haven pizza is inseparable from the Big Three, aka the Holy Trinity of old-school pizzerias that defined the style and continue to be its most famous purveyors: Pepe’s, Modern Apizza, and Sally’s Apizza.

Frank Pepe opened his seminal pizzeria in 1925, and it remains in the family, now with 17 East Coast restaurants from Massachusetts to Florida. Modern was established in 1934 on State Street, not too far from Pepe’s, and went through several ownership changes before ending up in the hands of William Pustari in 1988. Sally’s Apizza, which came under new ownership in 2017 and has since been in expansion mode, was founded in 1938 by Frank Pepe’s nephew, Salvatore “Sally” Consiglio, just a block down Wooster Street from Pepe’s, making for an epic double-dinner opportunity.

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Like the Yankees and Red Sox, these three pizzerias inspire fierce loyalties among locals, who often grew up going to just one. No matter which you choose for dinner, don’t expect to saunter in, as they all command long lines. That said, you might get lucky at Pepe’s secondary location, set back from its main pizzeria on Wooster Street. Frank’s daughters bought this unassuming building in the 1970s and named it The Spot, but those in the know recognize it as the original home of Pepe’s until the business moved next door in 1937.

"It's not burnt, it's charred"

Pepe, an immigrant born near Naples, Italy, was inspired by Neapolitan pizza. The major difference is that while Neapolitan is baked for about a minute in a blazing-hot wood-fired oven, New Haven apizza traditionally bakes for closer to 10 minutes in the high, dry heat of a coal-fired oven.

This results in another hallmark of apizza, “a slightly charred crust that imparts a delightful crispness,” explains Kevin Gagliard, director of operations for Pepe’s. That delightful char can surprise newcomers, particularly when the darkness of the crust ends up all over their fingertips.

“We always ask as soon as they sit down, ‘Have you been to a Sally's Apizza before?’” says Bret Lunsford, executive chef and culinary director of Sally’s, which is in expansion mode. “If they haven't, then we explain what New Haven apizza is, starting with, ‘It's not burnt, it's charred.’”

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Pepe’s and Sally’s are the only apizza places that still use coal, but other pizzerias work to achieve the trademark blackened crust with ovens powered by gas, electricity, or oil, as in Modern’s case since it moved on from coal in the late ’60s.

There's nothing plain about good ingredients

The pizza that Pepe was selling at the start had a simple topping of tomato sauce, pecorino cheese, garlic, oregano, and olive oil. This “plain” or “tomato pie” remains the foundation for apizza, showcasing the bright, bold flavors of high-quality ingredients. Minimalism tends to be a throughline for apizza toppings, which means even mozzarella, or “mootz,” doesn’t come standard — you have to order it like an extra ingredient.

Another notable topping is clam, which shows up on garlicky white pies. Beginners should try Sally’s, which features finely chopped bivalves seasoned beautifully, helpful for winning converts to the unusual pizza topping. Clam pie aficionados, however, also flock to West Haven for Zuppardi’s, which features whole clams, fresh-shucked. It’s the only pizzeria outside of the city limits that locals count among the pantheon of true apizza places for two reasons: It originated in New Haven in 1932, and it’s just that good.

Related: Connecticut Wants Pizza to Be Its Official State Food, but New Jersey Isn't Having It

Other popular toppings include potato — served mandolin-thin with aromatic rosemary at Sally’s or mashed alongside bacon at the downtown brewpub/nightclub BAR — and eggplant, sliced thin, breaded, and fried to perfection at Modern.

Beyond apizza

Of course, not all New Haven pizza is New Haven-style pizza. Noteworthy outliers include Yorkside Pizza Restaurant, an old-school Greek pizzeria downtown frequented by Yale students; Gioia, a hip new Italian restaurant and cocktail bar across from Pepe’s, where you’ll find the city’s only square grandma-style pies; and Zeneli, which serves classic Neapolitan-style pizza next door to Gioia.

But most New Haven pizzerias take fairly direct inspiration from the Big Three, tending toward thinner pies cooked at high heat till charred. Ernie’s Pizzeria in Amity eats like New Haven meets New York, extra cheese and all. Da Legna at Nolo on State Street is apizza if it were wood-fired and maximalist. The term that the East Rock neighborhood’s Atticus Market uses could describe all these pizzerias and more: “New Haven-ish.”

“Going in, I think we were probably the harshest critics of the idea of how we were going to do pizza in New Haven,” says CEO Charles Negaro, Jr., who also runs New Haven icons Atticus Bookstore Cafe and wholesale Chabaso Bakery, both founded by his father. “People have such strong loyalties to their spot.” Case in point: Atticus pizza began with Negaro and a friend trying to replicate the flavors of Sally’s in the backyard for fun.

When Atticus Market opened in 2021, the passion project became a business prospect, evolving into its own unique take that launched later that year: an electric oven-fired sourdough pizza featuring regional whole grains and local, seasonal toppings like charred herb pesto or koji-roasted mushrooms. Like so much of New Haven’s apizza scene, it blends respect for tradition with unparalleled good taste.

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