NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Sally’s or Pepe’s?
The question refers to two renowned pizzerias in this city, which is itself famous in the pizza pantheon for its distinctive thin-crust pies.
Sally’s Apizza and Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, both in New Haven’s Little Italy neighborhood, routinely land on national best-of lists.
Over the decades, Pepe’s and Sally’s, which are about a block apart, have developed passionate fan bases. Loyalists will line up outside one pizzeria when a table may be available down the street at the other. Fans debate the merits of crusts, toppings (mozzarella is not a given), décor and service.
“Anybody that has ever traveled between Boston and New York and hasn’t stopped there has missed — I was going to say, ‘is an idiot’ — but has been deprived,’’ said Tim Zagat, who helped found the Zagat restaurant guidebook company and who, as a Yale graduate, has some firsthand experience. Sally’s and Pepe’s, he said, “have been leaders since before most of the rest of the country knew what pizza was.’’
Now, the possible sale of Sally’s and a related legal battle are prompting anxiety among pizza enthusiasts about the fate of one of these gastronomical institutions.
“Sally’s definitely has its own vibe that I hope doesn’t disappear,’’ said Gorman Bechard, a writer and filmmaker whose new documentary “Pizza, a Love Story’’ details the history of three New Haven pizza palaces, Sally’s, Pepe’s and Modern Apizza. Or, as Bechard refers to them, “the only three pizza places in the world that matter.’’
“There’s something charming about the quirky waiters and the craziness of the place,’’ Bechard said of Sally’s. “It’s really like going to dinner with your crazy relatives.’’
Frank Pepe was born on the Amalfi Coast of Italy in 1893. He moved to New Haven with his wife, Filomena, and in 1925 they opened a restaurant. It soon outgrew its space and moved to its current location on the same street. The original restaurant is now called the Spot, and is owned by Pepe’s seven grandchildren. Pepe’s catered to Italian immigrants pouring into New Haven, many of whom settled in the Wooster Square neighborhood to work on the Hartford and New Haven Railroad and at nearby factories.
Thirteen years after Frank Pepe opened his restaurant, his nephew Sal Consiglio opened Sally’s. There was enough business for both.
To the untrained pizza palate, the difference between Pepe’s and Sally’s “apizza’’ is not immediately apparent. (Apizza, according to Bob Consiglio, Sal’s son and one of the owners of Sally’s, is a New Haven term based on the Neapolitan accent of early immigrants to the city.) Both restaurants’ pies have thin crusts and are charred at the edges. Frank Pepe’s is famous for its white clam pie. Sally’s signature pie is its original tomato pizza, topped with a sprinkle of grated Parmesan.
Pepe’s and Sally’s were among the first pizzerias in the United States and helped establish New Haven as a pizza destination. “These are the two institutions that really define New Haven,’’ said William F. Dow III, a prominent criminal defense lawyer in New Haven and a frequent Pepe’s customer.
Devotees also include alumni of New Haven’s other famous institution, Yale University. Few students have graduated from the Ivy League university without having eaten at least a slice or two.
“It’s very hard to talk about going to Yale without having Pepe’s or the Spot or Sally’s come up in a conversation,’’ said Zagat, a class of 1966 Yale Law School graduate who studied over pizza with his wife and law school classmate, Nina Zagat.
After Sal Consiglio died in 1989, his wife, Flora, ran the business along with their sons, Rick and Bob. When Flora Consiglio died three years ago, she left Sally’s to her sons and their sister, Ruth. Shortly after, the siblings started getting calls from people interested in buying Sally’s. After years of making sauce and kneading dough, the siblings decided to sell.
The restaurant was never formally put on the market, Bob Consiglio said. Instead, the Consiglios invited bids. By spring 2014, they had half a dozen offers, including one from their cousins at Frank Pepe’s. “We felt if they were going to sell, we could keep it in the family,’’ said Gary Bimonte, one of the seven cousins who own the Frank Pepe’s restaurants. “We just know how hard they worked all these years.’’
While Sally’s seems frozen in time, Pepe’s has expanded its business, adding six locations since the third generation of Frank Pepe’s descendants took over in the early 1990s.
But Pepe’s was not among the highest bidders, and the Consiglios negotiated with other buyers, including a group called Al Dente. According to court filings, Al Dente’s $3.1 million bid was the highest of those received.
In September 2014, after the Consiglios had chosen another bidder — they declined to identify the bidder in several interviews — Carmine Capasso and his brother Vincenzo, who were part of Al Dente, filed a lawsuit in which they accused Sally’s of breaking an agreement to sell the restaurant to them.
Carmine Capasso declined to comment on continuing litigation. His lawyer, Laurence Parnoff, said Capasso had planned to continue running Sally’s as a pizza restaurant.
A Connecticut Superior Court judge, Matthew E. Frechette, ruled in the Consiglios’ favor last summer, writing in his decision that “there was never a binding contract between the parties for the sale of Sally’s.’’
The Capasso brothers appealed the decision, but in the meantime Frechette lifted a hold on the sale of Sally’s, freeing the Consiglios to sell the business to another buyer. The Consiglios said they were talking with interested parties, but had not reached a deal.
For now, Sally’s continues to serve its pies Wednesday through Sunday on aluminum pans lined with parchment paper. Patrons often wait outside before the restaurant opens at 4 p.m.
Seated in a front booth recently, near a wall of Frank Sinatra portraits and memorabilia, Angelo Cocco recalled Sunday drives to Sally’s with his parents, traveling from Bridgeport, Connecticut, on the post road long before the Connecticut Turnpike was built. These days, Cocco, 74, makes the trip from Bridgeport to Sally’s every Friday for an original tomato pie. His voice cracked with emotion when he talked about the Consiglio family. “I love them,’’ he said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and his family tucked into Sally’s pizza during Yale’s parents weekend in September — his son, Dante, is a student. “He was a real regular guy, a real nice guy,’’ Rick Consiglio said of the mayor. (Employees could not recall whether de Blasio used a fork to eat his pizza.) Hillary Clinton, a Yale Law School graduate, sent a condolence note on her Secretary of State letterhead when Flora Consiglio died.
Garry Trudeau, who drew a “Doonesbury’’ cartoon when Sally’s celebrated its 50th anniversary, said in an email that he had met the Consiglios and discovered Sally’s “exquisite’’ pepperoni pies when he attended Yale in the 1970s. He had never been to Pepe’s. “Once you’ve tried Sally’s, there’s really no need to look further,’’ he said. “It’s perfection.’’
Dow, the defense lawyer, routinely asks the “Sally’s or Pepe’s’’ question when he meets people. In his view, the question is about more than crusts and toppings.
“It’s about whether you know New Haven,’’ Dow said, adding, “If you don’t know that, you don’t know New Haven.’’