To most, New York is the pizza capital of the world. But residents of New Haven, Connecticut, who claim their city is the birthplace of modern pizza, beg to differ.
In 1919, Italian bread bakers in and around New Haven started cooking up plain tomato pies in their coal-fired ovens, inventing “apizza” — pronounced “abeets” — a distant relative of what’s considered pizza today.
Now, New Haven apizzas can be found a little closer to home.
Haven Pizzeria Napoletana opened Feb. 15 on Wisconsin Ave. The restaurant offers the classic New Haven style, bringing a slice of Connecticut to downtown Bethesda. With its authentic equipment and cooking techniques, Haven hopes to set itself apart from other local pizzerias.
A signature feature of the pizzeria is its two custom brick ovens, reinforced with steel beams. Most pizzerias use wood or gas burning ovens, which create moisture in the baking environment.
Haven’s ovens, however, burn on special anthracite coal, which prevents moisture from entering the crust. Each 50-ton brick oven produces consistent dry heat at temperatures in excess of two thousand degrees, general manager Mark Bergami said. The oven results in a distinctly smoky charred crust, an unmistakable feature of New Haven-style apizzas. The dry heat also prevents the crust’s center from getting soggy, Bergami said.
Haven’s head pizza chef —Pizzaiolo, in New Haven slang — Tony Hassan notes the advantages to their cavernous ovens.
“With the large ovens, we can cook the pizzas for much longer without burning them, making the pizzas crispier while cooking the ingredients all the way through,” Hassan said.
To slide the pizzas into the 144 square-foot oven, Haven’s Pizzaiolos use 12-foot wooden paddles called “peels,” which add additional char flavor to the apizzas as they burn over time.
While one notable aspect of apizzas is the char, they are also known for their modest toppings: a liberal application of tomato sauce, a dash of oregano and a sprinkle of pecorino romano cheese. Unlike its New York cousin, apizzas aren’t topped with mozzarella; “mootz” is considered a separate topping.
Though true New Haveners would never top their pizzas with prosciutto or arugula, those two are Haven’s most popular toppings, Bergami said. The white clam pizza, Haven’s top selling pie, is an ode to a New Haven classic. Sitting atop a simple base of olive oil, garlic, oregano and pecorino romano, fresh whole belly clams compliment the smoky crust. A wide variety of meat and veggie toppings are also available.
House-made gelato and shakes add sweetness to Haven’s menu. Churned each morning in Haven’s Italian gelato machine, one of only three in North America, the process creates a denser gelato by replicating how ice cream was originally made, Bergami said.
Above all, Bergami hopes Haven’s straight-forward approach will result in success for the pizzeria.
“We’re just trying to use simple recipes, fresh ingredients and good cooking techniques,” Bergami said. “Not many gimmicks here.”