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Can New Haven’s Legendary Pizza Joints Play on the National Stage?

For generations, New Haven has been a pizza town.


The pies are distinct: more of a meal than the greasy, fold-up-and-go New York slices, more blue-collar than baroque California concoctions. They are a sort of American Neapolitan — chewy, charred and fresh, but with quirkier toppings than one might find on a traditional pie in Naples.



The culture is unique, too. Connecticut natives and Yale University graduates alike hold pointed opinions about which pizzeria is best. Each weekend, lines stretch down Wooster Street and through Wooster Square, as local families and tourists line up for lunch.


But in the past few years, things have begun to change. Suddenly, it seems like everyone wants to cash in on the popularity of the city’s signature dish.

“I’ve been promoting New Haven pizza for years and pushing it into people’s mouths — literally,” said Colin M. Caplan, New Haven’s unofficial pizza historian who wrote a book on the city’s pizza.


“This year,” he added, “it’s just gone bonkers.”



Mr. Caplan leads New Haven pizza walking tours and co-produced a New Haven pizza documentary. There is a New Haven pizza-making class and a soon-to-start New Haven pizza podcast. The athletics department at Yale recently announced a marketing partnership with Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, the city’s most famous pizzeria. There is a New Haven food e-commerce business, and there are numerous feisty pizza Facebook groups.


And there is merch. New Haven pizza pop art. New Haven pizza T-shirts. Even New Haven pizza baby onesies.


New Haven pizza has also spread beyond New Haven. Pepe’s has opened several out-of-state shops in recent years. Sally’s Apizza opened its first non-Connecticut location this month — in Woburn, Mass. — after first expanding within the state.

And far-flung independent pizzerias — from Chicago to just outside London — now sell New Haven-style slices, all without a New Haven location.


“New Haven-style pizza has set the standard for pizza,” Ricky Consiglio, whose father founded Sally’s, wrote in an email.



Mr. Consiglio — who, with his brother, sold the family business in 2017 — was initially skeptical that Sally’s could expand successfully. But he said it’s working. And it has become a pioneer in what he called the “New Haven pizza movement.”

The growth and the hype have their critics, too. They say that New Haven has something special — something specific. They worry that the expansion will take the family feel out of businesses that were once entirely family-owned and family-run.

They wonder if pizza tourism could turn the city into something like an Italian American exhibit at Epcot. And they think New Haven-style pizza sold elsewhere will inevitably lose something in translation.


“Describe the Sistine Chapel to me,” said Jim Ormrod, 38, whose great-grandfather started Zuppardi’s Apizza, which is known especially for its clam pie. “You can’t. You’ve got to go there.”


Technically, the dish that people in New Haven and beyond are so crazy about isn’t pizza. It’s “apizza,” pronounced “ah-beetz.” That’s direct from Naples: The recipes, and the name in dialect, came over with immigrants beginning in the 19th century.

New Haven has many pizzerias. But the most famous — Pepe’s, established in 1925; Sally’s, which dates back to 1938; and Modern Apizza, which was established in 1944 and been in the same family since 1988 — are known as the Big Three.


The city’s pizza tradition is built around three traditional varieties, although many places now experiment with more toppings.



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