New Haven, a City Tasting Tour
The city of New Haven in Connecticut, in the United States, has morphed from an oft-maligned, down-on-its-luck college town to a culinary destination. A few decades back, the main difference between the two best universities in America, Harvard and Yale, was that Harvard was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just next to Boston, and Yale was, well... in New Haven — meaning that Harvard was the clear winner. No longer.
Founded back in 1638, New Haven enjoyed a renaissance in the late 1990s, its downtown turned from down-trodden to a destination. Today, New Yorkers hop the Metro-North rail and ride the ninety minutes up the coast to go out for a meal in New Haven. Yale University is still the thriving heart of the city of some 130,000 (hometown of this author), its main center for cultural life. But a lively networks of restaurants, a few classics and many exciting new ones, have popped up to feed the city and its more than 10,000 hungry students.
AMERICA'S BEST PIZZA
Many a guide book and Yale graduate has argued that the world’s best pizza is no longer in Naples, Italy, but in the Italian neighborhood of New Haven. Populated by thousands of immigrants from the Amalfi Coast, this small enclave is home to Wooster Street, New Haven’s Little Italy. The street has been lined with great southern Italian restaurants since the 1930s. You would largely choose the restaurant based on what you planned to eat. Tony & Lucille’s is the classic Italian-American family restaurant, a bit more formal and with all that you’d expect on a menu: veal parmigiana, an array of pastas, saltimbocca, and so on. For dessert, you got to Libby’s, home of Italian ices and a wide variety of Italian pastries that are too sweet for some, just right for others. But those wrap-around-the-block lines you’ll see outside two restaurants are what really puts this street on the map. At either end of the street are two rival pizza places, Sally’s and Pepe’s. Every Yale student, and New Haven resident, has a favorite among these two rivals, and no trip to New Haven is complete without sampling both, so you too can decide.
Sally’s pizza was founded in 1938 by Salvatore Consiglio, who until my youth could still be seen shoveling pizzas into the hot red brick oven, to feed the really, really long lines that wove out the door of his beloved establishment. There were no reservations, and a pretty much mandatory wait of at least an hour. Perhaps the wait improved the experience, making you extremely hungry by the time you got to the front. There used to be a secret phone number that you could use to grab a table, a number traded like a briefcase full of plutonium among those in-the-know. Once there, you’d have the world’s best pies (as agreed upon by various visitors from Frank Sinatra to Bill Clinton). The star of the show is the fresh tomato pizza, available only in July and August, when the tomatoes are just right.
At the other end of Wooster Street, just as popular but a bit more commercial now (with other branches opened elsewhere), is Pepe’s Pizza (officially known as The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana). Opened by cousins of Salvatore Consiglio (most of Wooster Street is run by members of the Consiglio family), Pepe’s boasts the same lines, a similar menu (here the popular favorite is a white fresh clam pizza, but you can’t go wrong with white spinach and garlic or red bacon and onion), with a white brick oven instead of a red one. Both have throngs of loyal fans. Sally’s crust is slightly thinner and crisper, Pepe’s thicker and chewier, but they are two sides of wonderful.
Good things must be said about Modern Apizza, the third member of New Haven’s triumvirate, also storied (founded in 1934) but in a different neighborhood and with less of the cult about it: you can actually reserve a table there.
THE WORLD'S FIRST HAMBURGER
There is much debate over the invention of famous dishes, but all the guidebooks seem to agree that the humble hamburger began in New Haven, around 1900. The founder, Louis Lassen, made steaks. One day a gentleman walked in and asked for something he could eat in a hurry, on the go. Lassen took the shavings of the steak leftover after serving, and made them into a patty, which he offered as a sandwich. Today, Louis’ Lunch is in the same building that was established in 1895 (though it was moved from its original location), and Louis’ great-grandson still runs it. Often called the world’s best hamburger, it is all the restaurant serves. You can get it plain, with cheese (technically a cheese spread), or “cheese works” (with onion and tomato). It comes on toasted, buttered white bread. No toppings, no fries, no variations. If you ask for ketchup, you get squirted with a fake ketchup bottle. The meat is so good that a sauce would ruin it. Sound weird? The customer is not always right here, but the burgers are. The price is, as well-a burger is $5.25, but not long ago I remember when it was $2.75. The restaurant is tiny, always clogged with happy people, and if you eat here, you’ll learn why.
CAFES, DINERS & ICE CREAM
College towns need coffee shops, and New Haven has some of its own, despite the ubiquity of Starbucks. Willoughby’s Coffee and Tea is a New Haven original, roasting their own coffee and fueling the late nights of thousands of Yale students. Atticus Bookstore Café boasts a bit of history as well. Impressed by Kramer Books in Washington, DC (the first bookstore to include a café on the premises), Atticus opened beneath the famous, Louis Kahn-designed Yale British Arts Center. Its founder, Charles Negaro, was this author’s neighbor growing up, but I’m not at all prejudiced in my love for Atticus, where you can browse books and have a great meal. Their black bean soup is killer and they bake their own breads at Chabaso Bakery.
There are some beloved diners in New Haven, and one should mention the recently, and sadly, closed Yankee Doodle, which was as much an institution for Yale students as Louis’ Lunch. But fortunately Town Pizza is still going strong. Run by the very kind Nick (who used to feed this author every Friday for many years of his youth), the restaurant combines good Italian-American with good Greek-American fare, from enormous Greek salads and chicken souvlakis to pizza slices and meatball subs.
For dessert, New Haven is home to an excellent ice cream parlor, Ashley’s Ice Cream. Founded in 1973 and named after the founder’s beloved Frisbee-catching dog, Ashley’s makes a wide array of great flavors of American-style ice cream (not trendy gelato, but every bit as good), with Bittersweet Chocolate being the most recommended for intense chocoholics.
New Haven has transformed itself from “Yale is great, but New Haven…” into a food destination that is as exciting, rich, and lively as the famous university at its core. For your next food holiday, this is a great place to visit.