Colin Caplan was raised on New Haven pizza, and he has never lost his deep affection and desire for what’s now recognized, he proudly notes, as “the best in the world.”
“To me, a pizza is this early love,” Caplan says as he bites into a white pie with broccoli, onion, extra grated cheese and extra olive oil, and “no mootz,” at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana on New Haven’s historic Wooster Street.
“It starts with what you love,” he explains when I ask why he undertook years of research to write his newly published book, Pizza in New Haven. “I was probably 3 when my parents started feeding me pizza from Pepe’s. As soon as I could chew, I was eating pizza. But I didn’t realize how good I’d had it growing up until I left New Haven and lived in New Orleans, Florida and L.A. I realized more and more I love pizza — but I really love New Haven pizza.”
It’s almost impossible for Caplan, who a few years ago moved back to his old hometown, to talk about pizza without using the word “love.” Indeed, he is the producer of Connecticut filmmaker Gorman Bechard’s documentary-in-progress Pizza: A Love Story. The film focuses on the city’s “holy trinity” of pizza-making: Pepe’s, Sally’s Apizza and Modern Apizza. Inquiring minds want to know: what is Caplan’s choice for the best pizzeria of all?
“Sally’s, yeah,” he tells me. “Sally’s would be my last meal: a plain, grated with garlic.”
Why is Sally’s the best? “The crust and the sauce are heavenly. They’re like a religious moment.”
“The others that I love are very close,” he adds, clearly realizing he’s on Pepe’s turf. “It’s like making love: it’s the best when it’s happening. So I’m eating Pepe’s right now and it’s the best!”
For the record: Pepe’s ranks No. 2 on the Caplan hit parade. Modern comes in third.
We weren’t sitting in Sally’s for our interview because it was a Monday and Sally’s is closed on that day of the week. And so is Modern, which helped to explain why a line was already forming outside Pepe’s at 2 p.m. on a weekday.
Caplan is not just a foodie, although he leads culinary tours of the Elm City for his enterprise, Taste of New Haven. He is also a historian who has written six books about old New Haven. His pizza book is filled with evocative photos of the city and its neighborhoods, especially Wooster Square. Caplan delivers the fruits of his exhaustive research, answering many commonly asked questions about New Haven’s pizza history.
For instance: the first pizza was not made in New Haven, as many people claim. The slogan for Pizza: A Love Story puts it this way: “Pizza wasn’t invented in New Haven. It was perfected there.” In his book, Caplan notes most “pizza theologians” agree it originated in the 1600s or 1700s in the Naples area, specifically the Campania region.
And for anybody who states Frank Pepe was the first one to make pizza in New Haven, Caplan will set you straight: there were 10 or more pizzerias in the city before Pepe’s opened in 1925. Caplan does credit Pepe’s as the oldest continually run pizzeria in New Haven. Caplan’s research also shows pizza was being made in America as early as the 1890s, by Italian immigrants from the Naples region. He says the first pizza served on our shores was offered in New York, New Haven or Boston.
The challenge is finding records of it. “There were bakeries in New Haven making pizza in the 1890s,” Caplan says. “But they didn’t document it.” His book provides many details about New Haven’s “Pizzeria Pioneers,” including Francesco “Frank” Scelzo, Ignazio “Iggy” Camposano and Domenico Caccioppoli.
In chapter five, “Old Reliable,” Caplan tells us all about Pepe, who arrived in New Haven in 1909. Shortly after 1925, when he opened his bakery, he hired his nephew, Salvatore “Sally” Consiglio. But Sally grew weary of working the night shift and saw an opportunity when a nearby pizzeria closed. His mother, Filomena, put up the money and Sally’s Apizza was born.
Caplan’s book is laced with colorful anecdotes, such as Frank Sinatra’s first visit to Sally’s in 1941. He remained a loyal customer. John F. Kennedy, soon to be president, stopped in on Nov. 6, 1960. But Pepe’s has lured President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton on multiple occasions, as well as Ronald Reagan when he was campaigning for president. In 1993, “Flo” Consiglio, wife of Sally, refused to open the pizzeria on a day it was closed when Bill Clinton wanted to sample the place down the street from Pepe’s.
Caplan also has a chapter titled “Pizza and Beer.” Drinking a Genesee lager with his pizza, he says: “It’s a huge subject!” But he acknowledges, “In Italy, it’s pizza and wine.”
In 2006, his book notes, Pepe’s began franchising around Connecticut and out of state. You can eat “Pepe’s pizza” in Fairfield, Danbury, Manchester, Waterbury, West Hartford and at Mohegan Sun, as well as in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. This is a sore subject for Caplan. “The only one I’ve had was at Mohegan Sun 10 years ago. I knew it was different; I knew it wasn’t as good.”
Caplan credits the old brick ovens as well as New Haven’s water and “perfect relative humidity” for its wonderful taste. He also notes that the city’s Italian families have passed down the culture and recipes through generations. “It’s a real American story. It’s Connecticut’s food and we should be proud of it.”