East Coast tour: 1. Connecticut comestibles and the apotheosis of pizzas

October 8, 2011 • 7:04 am

I’ve just finished the first day of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) convention, which is way fun.  We toured Mark Twain’s house, and in the evening Dan Barker played piano and sang songs (including a love song he wrote for the two evening speakers, who are married to each other), Dan and Annie Laurie Gaylor gave a report on the year’s activities of the FFRF, and then Steve Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein talked about their new books.

I have photos and more to say on this, but first things first: comestibles. On Thursday I gave a science talk at Wesleyan University, and, when I accepted their invitation, I requested that I be taken to eat at one of the famous pizza joints that dot Connecticut.  My host, Fred Cohan, fortuitously chose what is perhaps the best: Pepe’s Pizza on Wooster Street in New Haven.

This place, opened by Frank Pepe in the 1920’s, is a legend.  Here’s the founder (later pictures show an increasing corpulence, no doubt due to consumption of his own product):

According to Michael Stern, the doyen of indigenous American cuisine:

Crust is what makes a Pepe’s pizza outstanding. It is Neapolitan style — thin but not brittle, with a real bready flavor. Cooked at high temperature on the brick floor of the ancient oven, it is dark around its burnished gold edge, and there is a good chew to every bite. The pizza men aren’t too fussy about scraping the oven floor, so it is likely the pizza’s underside will be speckled with burnt grains of semolina and maybe even blotched by an oil spill where another pizza leaked, all of which give the mottled oval a kind of reckless sex appeal that no tidy pie could ever match.

Here’s the oven, which consists of an open brick chamber with an adjacent chamber which contains a pile of fiercely glowing coals:

And the fuel:

Stern continues:

Frank Pepe, New Haven pizza’s Zeus, started very simply, selling pies that were nothing more than tomato with a few pinches of anchovy. To this day, Pepe’s premier pizza is made without mozzarella. It is called a white clam pie, and it is nothing but crust strewn with freshly-shucked littleneck clams, olive oil, garlic, oregano, and a dash of grated cheese. Without a mozzarella mantle, the dough develops wicked resilience, its mottled surface frosted gold. Mozzarella with onion (but no tomatoes, and perhaps a bit of garlic added) is another long-time favorite, as are the more traditional configurations with tomato sauce, cheese, pepperoni, and sausage. Broccoli and spinach are more recent additions to the kitchen’s repertoire; they are well suited to a white pie with mozzarella and garlic. But if you are coming to Pepe’s for the first time, try the white clam pie. It’s roadfood heaven.

Ever since I read about Pepe’s a few decades ago, I wanted to go there and try their white clam pie.  I was anxious before our visit, because sometimes they run out of fresh clams, and they won’t use canned ones. But we were in luck: fresh clams were on tap, and we got our pie.  And what a gorgeous thing it was, too:

This may well have been the best pizza I’ve ever had. The crust was as Stern describes it: chewy, substantial, and with some crispy bits.  And, oh, the topping was lovely. You might think that a pizza with cheese, clams, oregano, olive oil, and garlic sounds weird, but it was fantastic.

Here’s my host, Fred Cohan, downing a slice (Fred works on the evolution of bacterial diversity). We made short work of what was a very large pie:

De rigueur for washing down the pie is a local favorite, birch beer: a soft drink made from birch bark.  Birch beer is to clam pizza as Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray tonic is to a pastrami sandwich:

The other person at our meal was Barry Chernoff, a prolific freshwater ecologist who specializes in fish ecology and runs a large environmental program at Wesleyan.  He also plays guitar in a rock band and rides his pride and joy, a 2002 Honda Goldwing GL 1800 motorcycle.  This is an 1800 cc motorcycle; there are cars with engines smaller than that!  Here’s Barry on his monster bike:

Now before some health-food miscreant tells me that I’m eating all rong, let me say that I regard seminar trips as “free food zones,” in which I can indulge in a little not-really-healthy food. I don’t eat like this all the time!

That said, here was breakfast next day at O’Rourke’s, a famous diner in Middletown, where Wesleyan is located:

Desayuno:  A guacamole/jalapeno omelet with chili, black beans, hashed browns, and toasted Irish soda bread. The breakfast menu is about ten pages long, with a whole page devoted solely to versions of Eggs Benedict:

Finally, dinner the night before last was at a local Oaxacan place in Middletown, Iguanas Ranas Taqueria. I had a monstrous burrito filled with tender chicken and caramelized onions.  It was delightful, especially when washed down with Dogfish 60-minute Ale:

I’ll have more to say about godlessness (with photos) in a subsequent post. Right now I’m letting the toxins work their way out of my system.

19 thoughts on “East Coast tour: 1. Connecticut comestibles and the apotheosis of pizzas

  1. yum yum (clam pizza)
    yum (real birch beer)
    yum (guac/jalapeno omelet)
    yum (chicken burrito)
    yum yum (Dogfish Head 60)

    Point of pedantry: ‘hashied browns’? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that construction before. Perhaps it would be most grammatically correct to say ‘hashed brown potatoes’, but if the noun is ‘browns’ then you’ve already given up on making sense and so I think they’re more properly ‘hash browns’ in the vernacular.

  2. Be careful! Exposing the godless to food like that might undermine their lack of faith! What a great post to read on a Saturday morning – thanks!

  3. Mmmm, toxins! I love birch beer, and am willing to concede, even as a Chicagoan, that more than one kind of pizza can be considered good. There’s a Oaxacan place near here that is really great. Don’t go there often enough, but then again, I’m not on the road, so the calories count.

  4. White clam pizza – yum and what a great idea, too, for those like me whose beard has turned white. I have to be careful around anything with red sauce now. I bet it would go well with a Dr. Brown’s as well.

    And crimony! At 1800cc that Goldwing has two fewer wheels and 500 more cc than my Festiva. I had no idea the engines were that big – the big Harleys didn’t go above ~1350 till ~10yrs ago, and only hit 1800 in 2007.

    1. And the engines are quite different. The Harley is a V-Twin, the Honda is an opposed 6 cylinder which produces lots more power.

      I can’t remember which city, but a Scandinavian city which was having trouble with traffic in the older areas of their city decided that the problem was tow trucks not being able to recover broken down vehicles without wreaking havoc, due to the narrow streets first laid out before cars. There solution was to modify Honda Goldwings as tow vehicles. The Goldwings were small and nimble enough to get to the broken down cars without causing major traffic problems, and powerful enough to do the job.

  5. This is an 1800 cc motorcycle; there are cars with engines smaller than that!

    Hey — I resemble that remark!

    …or, at least, my ’68 VW camper, with a 1600 cc engine, does….

    I’ve never been big on clams, so I think I’d got for a different choice of pizza, but it certainly sounds like I’d be delighted with the offerings.

    And don’t you dare feel guilty about the food you eat on these trips. What’s the point of life without extravagances? Sure, extravagating excessively is likely to make you miserable, but never having any fun at all is even more stupid.



  6. Our daughter just graduated from college in New Haven this May, and so on visits over the past four years we have sampled the pizza offerings in Wooster Square and elsewhere in town. There are many. Pepe’s clam pizza is fabulous, no question (daughter bit down on a piece of clam shell once and thought she had broken a tooth), but if you have not also tried Sally’s pizza, just a mile to the east of Pepe’s, I tell you you’ve missed an equally good pie (or better, some claim). Next time, Jerry, you owe it to yourself to try Sally’s.

  7. Birch juice is popular in Russia. You cut the bark or break a branch when the sap is rising & it bleeds into a jar or bottle you place over/under the wound.

  8. As large as 1.8L H6 might sound for a bike, these days it is down right mundane. There is, of course, the (in)famous American made “Boss Hoss”, the ‘standard’ model comes with a chevy 5.7L V8 engine, but you can get a chevy 8.2L V8 engine in there if you like (or at least, you used to. I can’t say I look at their brochures often).

    But those are more of a novelty. I think the coolest big-cc bike that I always found the most novel was the Triumph Rocket3. Which is a massive 3 cylinder “power cruiser” of 2400cc’s. There are bigger cc/cylinder engines though. Such as the Kawasaki Vulcan 2000, that is, despite the name, closer to 2100cc’s.

    1. Those are simply ridiculous! They just ahve to take the fun out of it!

      They can’t 10% as much fun as my little ol’ ’76 Triumph Bonneville. It weighed about 375 pounds wet — probably less than the engines on these behemoths!

  9. Jerry, You live in Chicago, the Pizza Capital of the World. Going out of town and eating pizza? Isn’t that like taking coal to New Castle?
    Seriously, out here in California, there are only a few good places. Amici’s has NY-style pizza with the heat-singed crust. Zachary’s in Berkeley is a perfect recreation of Giordano’s.

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