This is it, ladies and gentlemen. The culmination of 6 months of increasingly refined pizza-tasting. We've had Costco, we remember what Round Table is like, we've tried the Pretenders like Bar and Zeneli's, but there's no way to avoid it anymore. The people have been calling for a head-to-head clash between the Big 3: Sally's, Pepe's, and Modern's, and what are we here for if not to cater to the crowd?
Joining us for this final episode are our two honored guest judges, Spence and Jenny. Their refined palates will help decide once and for all: who will win the Pizzawars? Who has the best pizza in New Haven?! Read on, fellow food adventurers, read on...
Before we pick up a slice, we need to establish some context. We were flying back to New Haven this fall when this little gem appeared on our in-flight entertainment systems:
Yes: there is AN ENTIRE DOCUMENTARY on New Haven's "universally recognized" pizza. It runs 85 minutes! Featuring the likes of Michael Bolton (who grew up in New Haven), the documentary lays out the history of the Big 3 and how they came to dominate the New Haven pizza scene (or, as the documentary would claim, the nation's pizza scene).
Here's the short version: Pepe's came first. Sally's was founded by rouge cousins/nephews of Pepe's who wanted to start their own joint. Both say they have no "ill will" but come on, what do you expect when a family member starts a rival restaurant just a block away? Modern's came third, and is famous for their Italian Bomb pizza, which is supposedly "the bomb." Also: you're supposed to say "apizza," not "pizza," "mutz" instead of "mozzarella," another word for pizza is a "pie," and the most classic "pie" of them all is the tomato pie, with maybe a small amount of mozzarella, but that's it. Chicago Deep Dish is not considered "pizza," and Hawaiian pizza is basically from Mars. Got it? Ok, let's go.
Pie #1: Red sauce, tomato, mozzarella
Pie #1: White sauce, clam, garlic
Pie #2: Red sauce, tomato, mozzarella, basil
Pie #1: "The Italian Bomb"
Disclaimer: We acknowledge that we should have probably gotten the same kind of pizza from all 3 places to provide an accurate ruling, we wanted variety. I mean come on, who wants to eat 3 pepperoni pizzas?
The judges dug into the white clam first. Outstanding clam flavor, brought out beautifully by the garlic and oil. The clams practically jump off the crust onto your taste buds. The crust itself is thin and crispy with the right amount of char. Not too heavy, not too light. Judge Jenny took one bite and declared it a fantastic pizza, which is no mean feat. Pepe's started strong by grabbing an early lead.
Next up: Sally's traditional red sauce pie. Unfortunately our judges were less than impressed. "It doesn't taste all that different from any other pizza," said Judge Spencer sadly. Judge Jenny concurred. The crust was still good, with that trademark New Haven crunchiness and char, but Judges Jen and Dex mused that yes, the red sauce didn't seem all that special today, whereas in the past it had been a highlight. Maybe it was the fact that the pizzas were brought home first, instead of consumed on the spot. Regardless: good, but disappointing.
Third: Modern's "Italian Bomb." The pie was dripping with toppings: bacon, peppers, sausage, mushroom, onion... The crust was thicker than Pepe's/Sally's, and there was minimal char. Judges' verdict was that it was a satisfactory pizza, but really not that special: "Feels like something we could get anywhere." To be fair, Modern did suffer from being the first pizza we picked up, and therefore the one that sat in the car the longest. Regardless, it was indisputably the pizza "most like pizzas everywhere else in the country" and didn't win our judges' acclaim.
Last, but not least: Pepe's margherita pizza. Another smashing hit. The crust pulled no punches, the dollops of mozz were perfect, and the result was a satisfying yet refreshing pie. It's a little hard to put a finger on what exactly made this pizza so great. The flavors were robust, the crust was excellent, nothing was too much or too little... perhaps that's all you need.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
By now we've eaten a lot of pizzas. Bar has been climbing up the rankings with their creative toppings and speedy service. But in the head-to-head contest of the heavyweights, Pepe's comes ahead as the best pure pizza. Guys and gals: the two hour line is there for a reason. The white clam pie is famous for a reason. That's why this post is titled, "Return of the King." Pepe's is the king of New Haven pizza, and in our very rigorous, very standardized 6 month pizza taste test, it has returned to claim the throne. Long live the king!
Does this make New Haven the pizza capital of the world, as claimed by the pizza documentary? Well, who knows, but if you're ever in New York or Connecticut, take note: do yourself a favor and come get a slice. We know we will!