Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Two New Haven Legends

My trip to New Haven was months in the making. I was to hook up with Jimmy Cantiello, my Connecticut food guide (and, it turns out, fixer) for visits to two of New Haven's legendary eateries, Louis Lunch and Pepe's Pizza. We had finally settled on a date of September 16.

My real-world friendship with Jimmy grew out of a cyber-friendship on several jazz discussion forums, first the now-defunct Jazz Central Station, then Jazz Corner. For the trip to New Haven I was joined by Brian Olewnick, another Jazz Corner habitué. The train ride up was enlivened by Brian's chance reunion in our car with an old friend, Nancy, a lapsed pastry chef. The three of us had a delightful chat, much of it about food, throughout the two-hour ride. Jimmy met us at New Haven's Union Station

Have It Our Way

Waiting for Louis, Olewnick (l) and Cantiello (r)

Our first destination was Louis Lunch, where the hamburger sandwich was supposedly invented. According to the authorized version, "One day in the year 1900 a man dashed into a small New Haven luncheonette and asked for a quick meal that he could eat on the run. Louis Lassen, the establishment's owner, hurriedly sandwiched a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread and sent the customer on his way, so the story goes, with America's first hamburger." Beware, however, that there are other claimants to burger origination.

The establishment is now run by Louis' grandson Ken. The place takes a fundamentalist approach, with burgers prepared and served just as they were in the beginning. Burgers are broiled in a the original vertical, cast-iron grill, which allows much of the fat to drip away, leaving an uncharacteristically lean burger. All burgers are served on white toast, because that was the way Louis, the creator, made them. No ketchup is served, because Louis didn't serve his burgers with ketchup (or mustard or mayo, for that matter). To put ketchup on one's burger is, in fact, a mortal sin.

Louis Lunch Burger, Exposed

In addition to my burger with tomato I had a pretty decent potato salad. Though I'm not a burger aficionado, Louis makes quite a good one, lean and tasty. One complaint that the three of us shared, however, was that although a sign proclaimed that all burgers are served medium-rare unless otherwise requested, ours were all medium-well. To be honest, I would have preferred it with ketchup. I also would have preferred a decent hamburger bun, or even better a crusty roll. Still, I think there is something to be said for the preservation of historical culinary accuracy. After all, it's the history and ritual that keeps the customers coming, some from pretty far away.

Jimmy Snags a Table

After lunch we drove to Jimmy's house for coffee and grappa, sipped to the strains of Charles Lloyd and Keith Jarrett. I was glad that I hadn't eaten heavily at Louis, because we were planning on an early dinner at Pepe's.

I think I had first heard about Pepe's, several years ago, through the kvells of the Sterns of the Road Food guide, who claim it's the "best pizza on earth." Michael Stern writes, "When the warden asks us what we want for our last meal, this is it: Pepe's white clam pizza." At about the same time I had invited both Jimmy and Melissa Rachleff, also originally from Connecticut, to a Chinatown crab feast. We got on the subject of pizza, and they both insisted that New Haven pizza is superior to New York pizza (though Melissa is a partisan of Sally's Apizza). You could call that a gauntlet.

While we were hanging out at his house Jimmy mentioned that he had arranged for us to bypass the long line one always finds at Pepe's. Jimmy had put a call in to his nephew, Frankie D'Andrea, a friend of the owners. He had explained that a couple of friends were coming up from New York, and he was hoping Frankie could use his pull to avoid a long wait. Frankie promised he'd try, and shortly thereafter he called Jimmy back and said, "Everything's been taken care of." Actually, he might not have said that at all, but everything was taken care of. Jimmy was to go inside Pepe's and speak to a certain waitress. He'd mention Frankie's name and she'd give further instructions. The rest of us were to wait outside. "You might all have to go in through the back way," Frankie had told Jimmy.

So Jimmy went inside and the rest of us waited in the parking lot next to the restaurant. Several minutes later Jimmy came out and told us the deal. We were to go inside, through the front door, and wait at the bar. They'd seat us at the first available table.

Within ten minutes we had a table, saving us at least a half hour. Jimmy has been a Pepe's regular for years, so we let him take command of the pizza order. Jimmy ordered two large pies for the four of us (Jimmy's wife Joanne had joined us for dinner), one white clam and one cheese with sausage.

Perhaps I was prejudiced by New York pride, but to tell the truth, while both pies were quite good, I was not bowled over. The crust was a bit thicker and denser than most good New York pizza, and I found it to be overly substantial. The pies are baked in the original coal-fired brick oven, and the crust does get an impressive char, I must admit. While the sausage pie was quite tasty, there was an overabundance of cheese. Proportion is, of course, a matter of taste, but there really was no need for so much cheese. Sometimes less is indeed more. The pies have an irregular shape, which is no problem at all, but the completely irregular and incomplete slicing, as if done with a dull jigsaw, was not something I found charming.

Pepe's White Clam Pie

The white clam pie is a Pepe's innovation, though certain other places, including New York's Lombardi's, have adopted it. It consists of a pizza crust with a topping of little neck clams with olive oil, garlic, a little oregano and a touch of grated parmesan. I think the clam pie is indeed the raison d'être of a Pepe's visit, and I won't deny it was excellent. However, at the risk of heresy, I think the version at Lombardi's is a formidable rival.

While I was somewhat disappointed, it was probably inevitable after the buildup. I certainly haven't written off New Haven pizza. Next year at Sally's!


Blogger Gerardo said...

That white clam pizza looks deadly...

Very jealous.


11:52 AM  
Blogger Marc said...

So is Lombardi's your favorite pizza place in New York? I'd say Grimaldi's is number 1 for me.

I absolutely love Pepe's, but may try Modern Apizza or Sally's next month when I'm in the area.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

To tell the truth, I haven't tried Grimaldi's yet.

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Ken said...

Sally's clam pizza is, indeed better that Pepe's, IMO, lived in New Haven for 9 years. But neither of these have brought me back to New Haven (9 years!!)
I was never a fan of the Louis' shtick, and you wil lfind that that contarption makes the buregrs on the lower rungs (the grease-catchers) more , not less greasy. The best burger was at Yankee Doodle on Broadway, mainly due to being fried in butter...with a butter-fried donut for dessert. YD was always about to close forever when ilived there so I don't know if it is around anymore but that was one of the best eats in NH. And the mashed potato pizza and an ale at the BAR brewpub.

11:04 PM  
Anonymous Greg Strong said...

You know, I've heard about the white clam pizzas in New Haven, and have been curious for a while.
My wife and I might move up to Westchester for a while during our renovation project, and we'll have a car. That is definitely one of our projects if we end up in Westchester. I can't believe the crazy shape of that pie.

8:02 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home