Semper Pie

When the pizza beast howls, it must be fed. But where? Luckily, Connecticut offers more choices than just about anyplace in the world.

 

When it comes to pizza, everyone in Connecticut is an expert. We may shy away from making judgments on haute cuisine or sharing our thoughts on an expensive bottle of wine, but pizza-hey, that's our middle name! We know what we like and we know where to get it.

But in a state with as many good pizzerias as we have, there are always some good ones that escape our notice. That's why every once in a while-this is the fourth time since 1990-Connecticut Magazine plunges into the fray, sniffing down leads, revisiting old haunts, checking out newcomers, wolfing down endless slices of baked dough, cheese and tomato, all so we can arrive at a list of solid recommendations that you can use when you've got a pizza craving that needs to be satisfied.

There are some observers, including several veteran pizzaiolos, who say we may be entering the last years of Connecticut's Golden Age of Pizza. Many of the Italian masters are winding down their careers or are no longer with us, and while they may have passed their pizza-making techniques and secrets down to the next generation, their stubborn pride, belief in the use of the best ingredients and dedication to perfection with every pie are not so easily transmitted. The result over time is that once-great pizzerias become inconsistent, methods first perfected in the hills of Campania become garbled and lost, and a two-for-the-price-of-one mentality begins to take over. Let's face it, in most cases the Albanian pizza is a nonstarter.

But for now, we still reside in pizza heaven. In fact, we'd argue that there's no better place in the world for this particular dish. With that in mind, we've mapped out for you a "pizza trail" that winds up and down the state from Stamford to Norwich. The trail is far from comprehensive, of course. There are many excellent pizzerias in Connecticut that did not make our list this time, so it might be best to think of this as a healthy sampling of the goods that are out there rather than an all-inclusive guide. We urge you to try them out, but please feel free to tell us about your own favorites-after all, we'll be doing this again sometime.

The Sublime Nine

There are several pizzerias in Connecticut that by now need no introduction at all. They've been turning out excellent and, in some cases, legendary, pies for decades -and word has gotten out, to say the least. We list them here as a mere formality, to let you (and them) know that we haven't forgotten about them. Make no mistake, these are nine of the greatest pizza restaurants in the state, the country and the world. We just wanted our tour this year to focus on places that haven't been written about quite so frequently.

Frank Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana
157 Wooster St., New Haven, (203) 865-5762

Sally's Pizza
237 Wooster St., New Haven, (203) 624-5271

Modern Apizza
874 State St., New Haven, (203) 776-5306

Roseland
350 Hawthorne Ave., Derby, (203) 735-0494

Zuppardi's
179 Union Ave., West Haven, (203) 934-1949

First & Last Tavern
939 Maple Ave., Hartford, (860) 956-6000

Harry's
1003 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, (860) 231-7166

Luna Pizza
999 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, (860) 233-1625 (and six other locations)

Alforno
1654 Boston Post Rd., Old Saybrook, (860) 399-4166

Pizza in Connecticut

Colony Grill
172 Myrtle Ave., Stamford
(203) 359-2184

There are thin-crust pizzas, and then there is the Colony's. Thinner even than New Haven's Neapolitan-style pies, this pie's crust is almost paper-thin, making its edges extra crunchy and delicious. If you like a pie with a unique difference, this pie's for you. And judging from the fact that this bare-bones tavern has been going strong since Prohibition and serves nothing but one size of pizza ($6.50 for the basic, easy for one person to polish off), plus, nowadays, beer and other drinks, we'd surmise that lots of folks do.

Toppings are the usual, though with the sausage made across the street at DeYulio's, that's an obvious top choice. Regulars, in fact, are keenest on the sausage "hot oil" pizza, as in serrano-pepper hot (where's that drink again?). Assuming that olive oil is as good for you as they say and that hot stuff clears the sinuses and cures what ails you, these pies may even qualify as health food.

Letizia's
666 Main Ave. (Rte. 7), Norwalk
(203) 847-6022

Lucky the folks at Fox Run. Their condos are just a stone's throw from the Town Line (Norwalk/Wilton) Shopping Center on Route 7, home since 1991 to Letizia's, a household word in Norwalk since Uncle Joe turned out his first pie downtown in 1937. When those pizza pangs hit, Fox Run-ners can run down the hill and snag some of the best pizza in Connecticut. Now turned out by the third generation of the same family, 'Tizia's pie has a thin, but not too-thin, ungreasy crust that's pleasantly crunchy along the edges-a delicate foil for Margherita toppings. Many swear by the pepperoni, sausage, white and "garbage" pies. 'Tizia's is not a place to linger-five tables seem mainly for folks waiting for takeout-but it's a must-stop if you're in the hood, especially Sun. and Mon. 4-9, when large regulars fly out the door at $8 each.

Rizzuto's Wood-Fired Pizza Kitchen
6 Stony Hill Rd., Bethel
(203) 790-4444

This is pizza with pizzazz-from the dough toss in the air to the blaze of dancing flames in the wood-fired brick oven, quite a show. Fortunately, the finished product is worth the price of admission and then some. Bill Rizzuto, former general manager of the Hyatt Regency in Greenwich (and food and beverage director for Hyatt Hotels Northeast), returned home a year ago to open a casual restaurant offering superior comfort food, in particular pizza made with high-protein flour, a touch of semolina-for greater elasticity-and fresh, often organic ingredients in creative combos. His delicious thin crust curls up invitingly along the edges and holds its own under a farmer's table of top-quality toppings (no skimping here). Get pie-eyed with the basil lover's chicken (grilled chicken showered with fresh basil), meat lover's (meatballs, sausage, pepperoni and apple-smoked bacon) and garden (artichoke hearts, roasted peppers and sun-dried tomatoes) goat cheese pizzas, and the No. 1 seller, tangy barbecue chicken pizza (grilled chicken with barbecue sauce, cilantro, smoked Gouda and pepper Jack cheese).

Papa's Pizza & Pasta
258 Naugatuck Ave.
Milford, (203) 874-0215

Six days a week for 20 years, Russ Pietrini has gotten up at 4 a.m. to begin making the pizzas at Papa's. Besides the long hours he puts in, Pietrini says the key to his popular pies is his insistence on using the best ingredients, and a little TLC. "I couldn't sell anything I wouldn't eat myself," says Pietrini, who was inspired by Pepe's in New Haven and bakes his hearty, thin-crusted gems in a brick hearth. Because Pietrini makes and bakes all the pies himself, Papa's can be busy at times even though it's take-out only-on a Friday you may even get a recording asking you to call back later. But as the many who rave about the shrimp, bacon and garlic pie-or even the simple cheese pizza-will tell you, it's well worth the wait.

First Street Apizza,
21 First St., Seymour
(203) 888-3255

Bells 'll ring ting-a-ling-a-ling, and you'll sing, "vita bella" when you taste the savory pie at First Street Apizza. These thin-crusted pies, baked up crispy and light, are delicious proof that the Connecticut pizza tradition is here to stay for at least one more generation. In 1998, when he was just 23 years old, Chris Guerra opened Dayton Street Apizza in New Haven. Its popularity soared and seven years later Guerra branched out to downtown Seymour with First Street Apizza. The menu includes a variety of gourmet toppings such as artichoke hearts and broccoli rabe, while specialty pizzas-red or white-include customer faves clams casino, the Margherita-prepared with imported Italian plum tomatoes, mozzarella, fresh basil, garlic, olive oil and grated Romano cheese-and The Works: a beautiful balance of pepperoni, meatball, sausage, bacon, onion, mushroom and peppers that doesn't overpower or soup up the crust. What more can we say? They deliver. Now that's amore.

Rossini's Pizza Restaurant
529 W. Main St., Cheshire
(203) 272-7297

If there were more restaurants like Rossini's, the world would be a happier place. This is a bustling local fixture, a classic Italian restaurant where you can enjoy a slice or two with a beer while the sounds of birthday parties and cheerful Cheshire chatter rise and fall around you, and a steady stream of steaming pies-to-go heads out the door. The pizza itself was formulated by three Rossini cousins, Mario, Angelo and Antonio, and co-owner Ralph Fusco, all of whom perfected their trade under Joe Bimonte at the late, legendary Bimonte's in Hamden. It's a wonderful pie with a crispy-chewy crust and high-quality ingredients. The pepperoni pizza, to name but one basic variety, is as good as any in Connecticut.

Vito's Pizzeria
1621 Meriden Rd., Wolcott
(203) 879-3335 

Back on the farm in Pontelandolfo, Italy, Vito Polletta enjoyed the pizzas his wife, Donata, made for the two of them to eat. After they came to the United States in the late 1960s, they worked at jobs in and around Waterbury, saved their money and looked forward to that day when they might start a business of their own. That day came in 1984, when, with Donata making the dough and Vito baking it in the brick oven, they opened what has become one of the best pizzerias in pie-eyed central Connecticut. Vito's offers thin, regular or Sicilian crusts, but much of the pies' success comes from the top-notch ingredients that include for instance delicious homemade sausage and imported tomatoes that the Pollettas crush and season themselves.

D'Amico's Slice of Italy
Village Green Plaza, Route 202, Litchfield
(860) 567-1754

There is pizza as made by the lifelong practitioner who never knew any other way of life, and then there's the pizza made by recent converts who decide relatively late in the game that pizza should be their lives. Such is the case with Joe and MaryEllen D'Amico, who left more traditional careers to take up the pizza-maker's apron and peel. Joe D'Amico apprenticed with his professore, Anthony Cantito, formerly of Gino's in Waterbury, and he has learned well. The specialty of the house is the Neapolitan pie; white clam pizza is a symphony of fresh clams, olive oil, garlic and herbs, Pecorino Romano and light mozzarella cheeses. Noted food critic (and obvious New York pizza snob)

Peter Elliott recently wrote, "For pizza in Litchfield County . . . there is only one place: D'Amico's in Litchfield cooks up as authentic a Neapolitan pie as you'll get outside of New York."

The Red Plate
253 Asylum St., Hartford
(860) 524-8365

The late-night pizza is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, nothing tastes better than a few slices while doing party wrap-up after a night out on the town. The downside is that if you eat too much, you might have to resign yourself later on to an unsettled night's sleep full of vivid dreams in which you are the only naked person at an important business meeting. Of course, just because The Red Plate is open until 2 a.m. doesn't mean you can't enjoy their great thin-crusted pies throughout the day. Among the specialties to be found at this welcome addition to Hartford's downtown scene are the Pig's Eye Pie (sausage, pepperoni, ham, bacon and hamburger), The Lighthouse (clams, parsley and garlic), The Meat and Potatoes (chicken, potato and basil) and the Stir-Fry Pie (seasonal vegetables). And night owls: If you want lots of naked people in your dreams, top off the pizza with a piece of The Red Plate's award-winning cheesecake.

Jerry's Pizza
885 Washington St., Middletown
(860) 346-5335

Although pizza purveyors in recent years have tried to spruce up their pies with many innovative toppings (pineapple, mashed potatoes, etc.), our basic taste for pizza remains blissfully unchanged and our expectations are very rarely challenged. But if you've got a hankering for something completely different, go try the White Sicilian pizza at Jerry's, located in a nondescript strip mall in Middletown. You have to order it at least two hours in advance to allow the dough to soak sufficiently in olive oil. The pie itself is an awesome, uncompromising, knock-your-socks-off Mediterranean blast: no cheese, no tomato, just anchovies, garlic, parsley and red pepper flakes baked on a crusty golden bed. Not to everyone's taste, to be sure, but if you love it, you may find you can't live without it.

Little Rendezvous
256 Pratt St., Meriden
(203) 235-0110

This no-frills Meriden gem started out as a small bread bakery in (or around) 1890 with a coal-fired brick oven. The building was enlarged in the late 1930s by annexing the grocery store next door. Now, the original bread oven is still used to make some of the most delicious (and hottest) pizza in Connecticut. Owner Paul Bernier honed his pizza-making skills as an employee of Little Rendezvous for 19 years before finally purchasing the pizzeria 25 years ago. He keeps the menu simple-pizza only (but with a choice of 22 toppings) and he makes every pizza himself to keep the quality consistent. "If I'm not here, we're not open," he says. The pies are big and real Napoletano-style with a hearty-crispy crust. The sauces (including clam) and the meatballs are homemade. Traditional sausage and pepperoni pizzas are popular with the regulars, and the hamburger pie is the best around. 

BAR
254 Crown St., New Haven,
(203) 495-8924

At BAR, what matters is not just the pies but the whole three-ring circus. Located in a 1915 auto showroom across the street from the one and only Louis' Lunch, it's a pizzeria, brew pub (New Haven's first), lounge, disco, live music club and private party facility all in one. Start with a pint of light and crisp Toasted Blonde or sweet 'n' malty AmBAR Ale in the Front Room-where the brewworks are part of the dcor-then move next door to the Bru Room for your main meal (in the summer, BAR's street-side glass door is rolled up to admit those digestion-enhancing summer breezes). As for the pizzas, they're entirely a build-your-own affair: Want a white pie dressed in anchovies, broccoli and pepperoni? Go for it. A red pie ablaze with green peppers, red peppers and hot cherry peppers, hold the mozzarella? Hellzapoppin'. Our idea of a classic BAR combo is the white mashed-potato pie with bacon, onion and mushrooms-but no matter what toppings you choose, you'll savor the Wooster Street authenticity of the thin, crispy brown-edged crust.

The Red Tomato Pizzeria
37 Boston Post Rd., Madison
(203) 245-6948

Everyone talks about having a great white clam pie, but for over a decade Chuck and Heather Hajnal have consistently provided one of the best in the state. Maybe it has to do with the gas-fired brick oven, which cooks pies to perfection, or the thin, chewy crust that comes from the daily made dough, but Chuck says look no further than the clams themselves, brought in fresh straight from the boat (out of Branford) every day and shucked right there in the kitchen. (On Friday nights, the wait can be up to two hours to get one of these gems.) If clam isn't your thing, the "House Special"-a white pie with mozzarella, sliced fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil, Pecorino Romano and olive oil-is also a true crowd pleaser. Like many other old-school adherents, The Red Tomato prides itself on the use of fresh ingredients and focuses on doing one thing-pizza-and doing it well.

Pizza Cucina
117 Boston Post Road
East Lyme, (860) 739-6234

Good things still come in small packages-in this case, think a cozy little white Cape house with owner Robert D'Agostino's murals and family photos on the walls, a restaurant with just enough room for three-and-a-half dozen diners at once and brick-oven pizzas that (in the dining room, at least) never exceed 12 inches in diameter. Pizza Cucina excels in tiny details, such as the way a crackery-thin yet chewy crust, topped with a layer of "original fresh tomato style" sauce (with crushed California plum tomatoes) and a dose of Gorgonzola breathe spunky new life into a classic three-cheese pie. Big things include the clams atop one of the restaurant's simplest white pizzas (all seafood comes fresh from Grossman's in Groton) and what we suspect is the calorie count on the Meat Lover's pie-hamburger, sausage, pepperoni and bacon, oh my. No matter. We'll return for the Sausage Cacciatore and Puttanesca pizzas, just because we know their taste will be as mellifluous as their names.

Angelo's Brick Oven Pizza & Restaurant
90 Plaza Court, Groton
(860) 445-1400

A nice surprise. Located in one of Groton's well-tucked-away strip malls-a post office on one side, a pet store on the other-Angelo's predictable storefront opens into a huge restaurant with all the family-style comforts: booths with red Naugahyde seats, oldies rocking on the sound system, perky greenery in every corner. Though it's run by the Indian family of pizza chef Harjid Singh-who trained in his specialty in Europe-trust us, there are no curries on this menu (though a few Greek gyro combinations augment the wealth of panini, antipasti and calzones). The pizzas, indeed, are blessed with a continental flair. We wish more chefs would try brave combinations like the Fiorentini, a white pie with sauted spinach, pignoli nuts, walnuts, capers, toasted garlic and mozzarella, or the red Al Capriccio, topped by hot salami, prosciutto, mushrooms, artichokes and olives. Got limits to your appetite? Any combination you want is available as a minigourmet pizza luncheon special, an easily devoured 6 inches in diameter.

Dominic's Brick Oven Pizza
77 Salem Tpke., Norwich
(860) 892-1510

What makes you feel good about a particular pizza place? How about enjoying a nearly flawless Liberty Pie (sausage, basil, sliced plum tomatoes and garlic) at Dominic's and then returning home to find this message on a food-related Internet site: "I am the manager of Dominic's Brick Oven. I am glad to see that people enjoy my food, for I've worked very hard in the past 2 years to improve my skills in the kitchen. I appreciate the 3-to-5-star reviews you have given me . . . If anything is unsatisfactory, I would love to make you happy. Word of mouth makes or breaks a business, so I try my hardest to keep my customers happy and service fast. Consistency is also key. I have several other cooks who work with me, so it is my job to keep us cooking all the same. If you get something different than usual, I want to know. Thanks for taking the time to read my extra-long entry. I hope to meet you sometime!-Jimmy." Thanks, Jim. How could we not want to return?

Second City

Why get your pie fix in Hamden when the place rubs city lines with the ultimate pizza mecca of New Haven? Well, sometimes proximity has its rewards, and Hamden is squarely in the middle of Connecticut's prime pizza territory. If you're craving a fine pie minus the long lines, it might be smart to head due north from New Haven. Here are just a few of Hamden's favorites to get your mouth watering.

OLDE WORLD PIZZA, 1957 Whitney Ave. (203) 287-8820

We'll begin with our neighborhood favorite. A compact, bare-bones joint with some take-out stools, three tables, a window to the kitchen and little else, Olde World gives Wooster Street a run for its money, consistently shooting out great pizza even a pie snob couldn't snub. Its well-cured gas-fired brick oven in the expert hands of Cattle, Joe and Tut produces a tasty, crisp and bubbly crust that supports an abundance of fresh standard and gourmet toppings. If you order by phone, have the car keys ready. Olde World's oven is blisteringly fast-15 minutes tops from order to out the door.  

ELI'S ON WHITNEY, 2402 Whitney Ave. (203) 288-1686 

Born where the venerable Bimonte's (kin to the Pepe clan) Pizza Castle once stood, Eli's has created a warm, booth-lined dining area and a small but varied market of yummy take-out dinners and confections. As for the pizzas, there's a bounty of pie toppings from which to choose. We noted a fresh Clams Casino for $11, a tempting Veggie Delight for $10, and-Holy Sausage!-sweet and Andouille sausages plus roasted peppers, crushed plum tomatoes and caramelized onions for just $11. Our white, half-and-half-all mozzarella, half sausage and broccoli rabe, half sliced fresh tomato and crisp meatball slices-topped an impressively dark, subtly sweet and flaky crust and bubbled rim. Lots to try here, and all very high quality and well priced.

BLUES PIZZA, 2035 Dixwell Ave. (203) 907-4992

We came for the pizza, stayed for the jazz. This newbie housed in a cavernous ex-auto shop is all about music-even the oven is dressed up as a saxophone. The long row tables ensure a convivial atmo-sphere and focus on the stage area, where local music heats things up several nights a week. The 13 specialty pies have an international feel, with names like Taste of Mexico, Hawaiian and Jamaican Me Crazy. Our Mediterranean-sun-dried tomatoes, crumbled feta cheese, black olives, garlic and red sauce-was a plentiful blend of sharp and savory atop a nicely thin crust. Specialty pies range from $12.99 for a small to $26.99 for a large Leonardo of fat shrimp, fresh spinach, fresh garlic and lime garnish. "Old Faithful" pies are $6.99 to $13.99 with 35 toppings ranging from $1.50 to $3 each. Blues Pizza delivers a great night out!  

SERGIO'S, 3860 Whitney Ave. (203) 248-2564

Family-owned and -operated since 1986, this neighborhood favorite is so friendly that "you can wear your pajamas," according to sister Rena. Besides excellent pizza, Sergio's also offers calzones, stuffed breads and full dinners. Everything from the bread, soups, meatballs and antipasto salad bar is made fresh daily in the kitchen. We enjoyed a white broccoli and a spicy meatball red pie, both served on a flavorful golden crust. A popular new creation is the Pollo Bianco-chicken, ricotta, broccoli, garlic over red or white, $14.25 small, $18.25 large. Regular pies start at $6.50 small to $9.50 large, with toppings from $1.25 each. The Sergio family strives to accommodate any taste.

Semper Pie

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