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The best pizza in New Haven? The definitive answer!

Once you’ve tasted pizza – more properly called “apizza” – in New Haven, Connecticut, you’ll understand why so many people sing the praises of New Haven pizza.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. If you click on one and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. This will not affect your price. None of the pizza places covered here knew I was doing taste tests, and none of their links are affiliate links.

Text: The Great New Haven Pizza Debate: Which apizza is the best? Image: a pizza.

Four prominent pizza places

The most famous of the New Haven pizzerias are Sally’s and Pepe’s, both venerable institutions, and both on Wooster Street. Frank Pepe’s Apizza came first, in 1925. Frank Pepe made Naples-style pizza, hence the name “The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana.” To this day it is still owned and operated by members of Frank Pepe’s family.

The sign on Pepe's reads: Frank Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana Est. 1925 and pictures a chef holding a pizza.

Sally’s Apizza followed in 1938, founded by a nephew of Frank Pepe’s called Salvatore Consiglio. It is also still owned and operated by family members.

Both of these original New Haven pizza places look pretty much the same as they did back then, when the neighborhood was predominantly Italian and pizza was still somewhat exotic in the US. The tables are mostly booths and the walls display photos of celebrities who have visited over the decades.

Both have opened up branches around Connecticut in recent years. It’s generally agreed that the branches aren’t as good as the originals.

Other pizzerias opened during and after World War II. Modern Apizza is another favorite New Haven institution. It claims to have been founded in 1934, but its history is less consistent in that it changed owners and locations several times. It has occupied its current location since 1942 and had its current owner, William “Billy” Pustari, since 1988.

Brick building with the Modern pizza in the storefront on the ground floor.

Recently a new place opened its doors just a few doors down and across the street from Pepe’s. Called Zeneli, its website starts with a quote: “Finally good Pizza has arrived in New Haven.” Is that just incredible arrogance or is it meant as a joke?

Zeneli was founded by four brothers from Albania. They lived in Naples for 20 years, in the process learning the trade, then moved to the US to open this pizzeria. Their pizza is not called “apizza” because it is not trying to be New Haven pizza; it is Neapolitan pizza. (I think the people at Pepe’s and Sally’s would object to this distinction.)

Why is pizza called “apizza” in New Haven?

Apparently this is just based on the Naples accent and how people there pronounce the word “pizza.” It sounds more like “ah-beets” when pronounced authentically. But don’t worry – you don’t need to imitate a Naples accent. The two words “pizza” and “apizza” are both used.

So what makes New Haven pizza so good?

My father grew up in New Haven and ate at the original two pizzerias back in the late 1930s and early 40s. He insisted that the key, besides whatever special recipe they have for the pizza itself, is the ovens. The pizzas are cooked in a coal-fired brick oven as old as the business and, he claimed, the ovens are never cleaned. That means that the oven, he argued, has absorbed the flavors of thousands and thousands of pizzas over decades, and that adds a deeper taste to every pizza they make.

A pizza missing a slice.
A Sally’s pizza.

Is this true? I don’t know. But the consensus that the branches aren’t as good does support the argument.

Modern Apizza used a coke-fired brick oven for many years – coke is a byproduct of coal. Nowadays their oven, slightly altered in shape, is oil-fired. Zeneli’s is wood-fired.

So why do a taste test?

Here’s the thing: when you’re eating, say, Sally’s apizza, it’s without a doubt the best pizza you’ve ever had. Ditto when you’re eating Pepe’s. You never eat them side by side, so it’s hard to compare and decide which is best.

Cue the great pizza debate. Everyone who’s lived in New Haven for any length of time has an opinion – often a very strong opinion – about which pizza place is best.

As an undergraduate student at Yale University back in the early 1980s, I had ample opportunity to sample various versions of New Haven apizza but never could decide which was best. Now, forty years past my graduation and back in town for my reunion, I decided to find the answer to which New Haven pizza is best. A dinner at Sally’s with some of my former classmates had me ruminating about how I could go about finding out.

If you’re going to be staying in New Haven, use the map below to find your accommodations.

Methodology

Here’s the quasi-scientific explanation of how we – my husband Albert and I – performed this taste test.

A perk of attending my college reunions is the fact that, since I attended high school in nearby Westport, CT, I also get to see many of my high school friends, who are still scattered relatively nearby across New England. I invited them for a mini-reunion at my rental house in New Haven the weekend after my college reunion. Ten of us took part in the taste test, while Albert served as the “scientist” who set it up.

We ordered pizzas from all four pizzerias: one “plain,” meaning it had tomato sauce and mozzarella and that’s all, from each one. Because this taste test would also be everyone’s dinner, we ordered another from each one with a range of toppings. We used only the plain ones for the taste test.

Albert had prepared a simple sheet of paper for each person, with the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the four corners. He placed these in front of each of us as a placemat. Then, in the separate kitchen, where we couldn’t see his preparations (or the identifying pizza boxes), he cut up the plain pizzas into small squares, placing one from each pizza on each plate. He served them to us, ensuring that the pizza pieces lined up correctly with the numbers on the papers.

A pizza box with Modern Apizza's simple M logo and the words Modern Apizza New Haven 1934.

Then we tasted them. We could eat them in any order we wanted, but the assignment was to report our first and second favorites.

Albert kept track of people’s choices, giving each first choice two points and each second choice one point.

The best pizza in New Haven: Result

We have a winner! Pepe’s ended up with 12 points, Sally’s with 9 points, Modern with 6 and Zeneli with 3.

A man stands next to an oven in a wall, holding a long-handled paddle with a pizza on it.
Dwayne, an employee at Pepe’s, tends to the oven using long-handled paddles.

A definitive answer?

Okay, this isn’t particularly scientific. I realize that. But it was fun to do and could certainly become a more reliable survey with a few tweaks.

We needed more subjects, of course. More taste testers would mean more reliable results. It also would make sense to see if the same subjects – and/or different ones – would give the same answers a week or a month later, to tease out whether our judgement of the pizzas was consistent or wildly subjective.

It would also help to have a control group. This group would receive four pieces as well, being told they were four different pizzas, but they would actually all be the same. Their votes should come out more or less even: 25% of the votes to each of the four slices.

Also, after the taste test, my friends who in the past had eaten New Haven pizza revealed that they could guess which ones were Sally’s and/or Pepe’s. This has to do with the “char” on the crusts. Both pizzerias are known for charring their crusts, and Albert had deliberately cut the pieces to include a piece of crust. We should have tasted a crustless piece.

A pizza with mushrooms, edged charred.
This close-up of a Pepe’s pizza shows the characteristic char on the edges.

A good addition would be to add one or more of the other, lesser-known, places in New Haven that claim to produce apizza. I think next time I would take Zeneli out of the mix and add some of these other places. Who knows? Maybe there’s a pizzeria out there that’s better than Pepe’s.

But never mind that. I have never taken a stand before on which one was better, but now I know. The answer to the Great New Haven Apizza Debate: the best pizza in New Haven is Pepe’s!

You might also like to read Why are New York bagels so good? or New York City on a budget: Free or cheap things to do.

A small additional taste test

A week later, after my sister heard about this taste test, she wanted to do the same. Bringing her two grown kids along, we did a small version of the same test, but with a few changes. We couldn’t get a Sally’s pizza until really late, so we didn’t include Sally’s. That alone makes this second taste test invalid, given that Sally’s came in second on the first round.

Nevertheless, we bought three plain pizzas: from Pepe’s, Modern and another apizza place called Michelina’s, which we chose mostly because it’s on the same street as Modern so we could pick up both pizzas at the same time. Michelina’s ovens are wood-fired, and they’ve been in business since 1987.

Albert cut the pieces again, this time leaving off the crusts. The three pizzas looked very different, though: Michelina’s was a bit thicker than the other two, and Modern’s has visibly more cheese.

The result of this second small test: Pepe’s won again, with Michelina’s in second place.

If you decide to do a similar test, please let us know – tell us what you did and what the results were in the comments below!

Here are the websites of all the pizza places mentioned in this article:

Have you had New Haven pizza? Which did you like best?

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Thanks Rachel! Always love hearing about New Haven Pizza controversy … as you may remember I grew up there, and also am class of ’65. (My personal favorite right now is Modern.) Do have to say that It is preferable, by far if I may be so bold, to eat the pizza in the restaurant, and I wonder if any test outside of the restaurant can be taken 100% seriously. But no matter, your column was fun!