|The Christopher Columbus statue was dedicated in 1892. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)|
Accidentally, with purpose
From ‘ahbeetz’ to zeppole, this Little Italy is a find
NEW HAVEN -- I had been coming here once or twice a year for more than four decades, usually to watch Yale’s football team play Harvard at the bottom of that steep concrete skillet called the Bowl or to see a hockey game inside the growling belly of the “Yale Whale,’’ the leviathan-shaped Ingalls Rink. I had heard about the fantastic pizza at Pepe’s, but never had managed to wander across the place.
I didn’t know that it was in Little Italy. Until recently, I didn’t know that the city even had a Little Italy, and I was a bit embarrassed to learn that I could have strolled there from campus along Chapel Street. Which is why I probably missed it for so long - most folks don’t walk there because of the optical barrier of the railroad tracks running below State Street toward Union Station a few blocks away.
It’s not easy to see past that gap to Olive Street and Wooster Square and the adjacent streets that make up one of the most compact and oldest Italian districts in the country. It’s a fraction of the size of Boston’s North End, where the cross-hatched warren of streets leaves tourists roaming at right angles, and its commercial heart is one street - Wooster - that can be traversed in less than 10 minutes.
Still, New Haven’s small-scale version holds its own against larger counterparts. It has the classic essentials: the brick apartment houses, the Saturday farmer’s market, the statue of Christopher Columbus, the old-country-style churches, the 19th-century Societa Santa Maria Maddalena, the festivals (cherry blossom in April, St. Anthony’s and St. Andrew’s in June), and an array of eating places.
Even better, there is two-hour free parking on Wooster Street, long enough to dine at any of more than half a dozen restaurants. There’s Consiglio’s, Abate’s, Anastasio’s, Tony & Lucille’s, and Tre Scalini, not to mention Libby’s pastry shop. Each has its loyal following, but the main reason most visitors drop by is for the pizza, known locally as apizza and pronounced “ahbeetz.’’
The two landmarks are Pepe’s (The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana) and Sally’s, and their crispy products have been the fodder for culinary debate for 70 years. Much as Philadelphians argue about whether Pat’s or Geno’s turns out the superior cheese steak, the question in New Haven is Pepe’s or Sally’s. They’re close enough that you can sample them back-to-back, but that’s risking gastric turbulence.
Pepe’s, which opened in 1925, is 13 years older than Sally’s, which was founded by Frank Pepe’s nephew Salvatore. Both are family-run. Both bake their pies in coal-fired ovens that create a thin crust with a delectable touch of char, and both serve them on rectangular trays lined with butcher paper and accompanied with knife and fork.
I tried Pepe’s in late afternoon because I had heard that the place was crowded at noon (The Spot next door has limited hours but the same offerings). Though the menu was cram-jammed with all manner of options and combinations, there was no question what I would order: the basic white clam pie. “You know there’s no cheese on that,’’ the waitress informed me. “It’s just garlic and oregano.’’
The simplicity was the lure. I grew up in Boston and had eaten clams in any number of versions - fried, baked, steamed, raw, chowdered - but never as a pizza topping. These clams weren’t spooned minced from a can. They were fresh littlenecks, large enough that they could have been chunks of quahogs. For $12.10 for a small pie, it was a bivalve banquet.
Later that night, I lined up outside Sally’s for what I had been warned could be a lengthy, if worthwhile, wait. “Pizza at 11,’’ the man ahead of me reckoned at 7:45. Limited seating has much to do with that - Sally’s is little more than storefront-size, with maybe a dozen booths. With only five people in line it still took me nearly half an hour to get inside, nestled next to the jukebox below framed photographs of Frank Sinatra (a Sally’s devotee) and Ted Kennedy. And though my order was taken promptly, my bacon-and-onion combo didn’t turn up until after 9.
The thumb-twiddling wasn’t in vain. The bacon pieces were substantial and the onion sliced razor-thin. Though I could have added mozzarella for an extra charge, the pizza was fine without it. While I would give a narrow nod to Pepe’s (the clam pie was a revelation), it’s remarkable that two such noteworthy institutions can be found on the same short street.
If you haven’t the luxury of waiting, Ferrucci’s Deli across the street is an authentic option. On the wall behind the counter, there’s the obligatory homage to patron saint Francis Albert - replicas of his gold records for “My Way’’ and “New York, New York’’ - and a poster of the sun-splashed Rat Pack standing in front of the Sands in Las Vegas.
Ferrucci’s $8.50 signature sandwiches are meal-size. The house specialty is crammed with porketta, broccoli, roasted peppers, and provolone. I ordered a Mandy’s Supreme (porketta, broccoli rabe, hot peppers, provolone, mozzarella) and selected a fizzy lemon gassosa from a fridge stocked with Foxon Park sodas, the throwback soft drink made in East Haven. Then I headed for Wooster Square to ingest and imbibe.
While it’s not one of the city’s original nine squares laid out in 1638 (the one on the bottom right is named Ninth Square), Wooster looks even more historic, with renovated 19th-century homes overlooking a large and shady park.
At the entrance, there’s an imposing statue of Columbus gazing at a globe in his left hand. Sitting on a bench with a mouthful of pork and peppers, you might as well be in Italia.
Though it’s a couple of blocks from the square, Lucibello’s pastry shop on Grand Avenue is a mandatory stop. You’ll smell the place before you see it, a fragrant whiff of cookies, flaky pastry, and cream. The shelves are lined with everything from traditional wedding cakes to cannoli. Since I was there on a weekday, Lucibello’s didn’t have its cream-filled lobster tails but they did have a crunchy and satisfying sfogliatelle, a clam-shaped creation stuffed with ricotta and diced citron fruit.
Through all my visits here, I had never guessed that there was such an abundance of ahbeetz and zeppole within walking distance of the Green. But from now on, I’ll think of Yale as the quaint Gothic charm school on the other side of the tracks from Little Italy.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.