New Haven Ah-Beets Gets “The Munchies”

DAVID SEPULVEDA PHOTOThe online Urban Dictionary defines Ah-beetz as “New Haven, Connecticut slang for Pizza.” But ask, say, the former mayor of the city, and he will tell you it’s much, much more — as viewers of a new Vice Media show make clear.

A new New Haven-focused episode of The Pizza Show airs on “Munchies,” a Vice Media channel.

The episode features the legendary New Haven pizzerias that helped define the culture of a city. Ex-Mayor John DeStefano Jr. seemed to relish his thoughts on the topic: “Ah-beetz to me is about family,” he said as he regaled the show’s host, Frank Pinello, with early pizza memories of being able to stay up late on Fridays, eagerly awaiting the arrival of his father, who was a cop, with a Sally’s pizza from New Haven’s own “Little Italy” on Wooster Street.

Later in life, a particular point of pride for DeStefano (“before I was mayor”) was his access to the Sally’s secret phone number: “The true measure of accomplishment in New Haven was having access to the secret number at Sally’s. … It entitled you to call Sally’s when no one else could get through, and be able to place your order.”

The Pizza Show’s host, a pizzeria owner out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, visited the kitchens of Frank Pepe and Modern pizzerias, then crossed the city’s border to visit a West Haven landmark, Zuppardi’s Apizza, which got its start in the 1930’s when Dominic Zuppardi opened Salerno’s Bakery on Donnelly Place in New Haven, where he sold pizza in addition to baked goods.

In 1934, the business relocated to West Haven on Union Avenue, and ownership of the business eventually transferred from Dominic, to his son Anthony, who changed the bakery’s name to Zuppardi’s Apizza in 1947.

The Munchies episode of The Pizza Show had its debut screening in a crowded back room of Zuppardi’s last Tuesday as guests were treated to complimentary beer and an endless parade of pies — over 35 large pies, according to present day co-owners Cheryl, and sister Lori. The sisters continue their parents’ and grandparents’ legacy in running the business.

In interviews with pizzeria principals, the show delves into the respective pizzeria recipes, the variety of old world ovens, and the family work ethic and values that give each establishment’s pizza its distinctive character —  qualities which together define what New Haven style pizza is all about.

Watch the entire episode in the above video.

Gary Bimonte, grandson of founder Frank Pepe and current co-owner of Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana, described Pepe’s apizza as having a “thin crust — crispy and chewy.” Highlighted, was the pizzeria’s fresh white clam pie ranked as the nation’s best pizza pie.

DeStefano provided a more extended, if not colorful, definition of what makes New Haven style pizza: “It’s flat and thin; cooked a little longer than someone else’s. …  It is not ladled with cheese and doesn’t have next Tuesday’s meat loaf dinner on top of it. It is, by its simplicity, authentic and real.”

Elana Schulman of The Pizza Show production team noted that there’s a pizza expert in every city. To get the lowdown on New Haven-style pizza, program host Pinello turned to New Haven’s “oracle of history—especially ah-beetz history,” Colin M. Caplan, who owns Taste of New Haven Food & Drink Tours. Caplan is writing a book about New Haven and American history as it relates to pizza. He gave the show a tour of his pizza ephemera and artifacts collections.

Asked why a West Haven pizzeria was included in the program, Caplan noted the pizzeria’s “huge following,” its traditional New Haven-style pizza and the fact that the pizzeria had its roots in New Haven: “If we’re going to talk about the best pizza we have to also go outside of New Haven,” he said.

For the show’s host, who said “New Yorkers think they have the best pizza—we are told that our whole lives,” it was more than a revelation to learn that there is another place with the depth and quality of pizza culture, that at the very least, matches his own. “This is a pizza town. …There’s no doubt about it,” he said as he downed his first New Haven slice at Bar.

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posted by: susanmccaslin on April 26, 2016  1:12pm

Love this article. love New Haven Pizza. Watched the show and everyone was so great. Thanks for this!

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 26, 2016  1:51pm

SALLY’S APIZZA FOR VICE PRESIDENT 2016!

posted by: John Sepulveda on April 26, 2016  2:44pm

I was born and grew up in New Haven.  I currently live in Massachusetts’s but I make an occasional trip to visit my brothers and friends in the New Haven area.  Those trips often include discussions on where to go for “ah-beetz”. 

I am now 59 years old and throughout my life, my brothers, friends and I have always debated which pizzeria in New Haven (including Zupardi’s in West Haven) each felt was best and why.  My personal favorite and my oldest brother Vic’s favorite was Sally’s.  My brother Lou alway’s touted Modern,  Somehow Ernie’s made it into the mix when a lot of cheese was desired.  The one qualifier was that it had to be eaten when it was hot at the restaurant.  The pizza quickly reached the law of deminishing returns once it left the restaurant.

My brothers and I primarily had access to Frank Pepe’s as kids when it was located in the Westville area of New Haven. While Wooster street was considered the pizza capital for us New Haveners growing up, today we revere State Street as the place to go to satisfy our hankering for a slice and a beer. 

I love that my brother wrote this article as it is a topic very near and dear to me, my brothers and my close friends.  If we were to each list our top 5 favorite pizza places, I’m sure the lists would have very little variation.  If you’ve never been to New Haven for a slice of heaven, I highly recommend you put it on your bucket list. 

Great article Dave.

posted by: Walt on April 26, 2016  4:02pm

Sally’  s is the best by far,  followed by Zuppardi which seems to copy the Sally recipe as does a Zuppardi relative in lower Vermont (Greenfield or similar ,a couple of miles over the MA   border)===outstanding

Modern has the best PR, often praised by its customers but terrible with at least an eight inch uncooked raw center   each of the three times we brought one home and then threw it out as it was inedible.  That was probably 25 years ago and we are very unlikely ever to take another chance there.
Sally’s onion pizza and a cold beer was often my lunch way back when Catholics avoided meat on Fridays,  Then I would go back to the office and avoid exhaling near anyone

Now we are most likely to use the pizza place at old Hamden Plaza —[very good but Sally’s still beats it.}

posted by: robn on April 28, 2016  2:01am

Other notable, unsung Pizzerias near NHV include Tollis in East Haven and Roseland in (of all places) Derby.

posted by: Frank Columbo on May 1, 2016  5:35pm

A friend of mine said her Grandmother told her that Frank Pepe bought the oven that is at the Wooster Street location from her Grandfather or father Philip Cielza, who owned a bread bakery where Frank Pepe apprenticed back in the Roaring 20’s! This bakery was on Hamilton Street, it was below street level. My Friend’s 90 year old uncle does not recall the Tomato sauce bathed, grated Parmesan cheese topped bread referred to as Ahbeetz.

On the Pizza segment of the Munchies Show Gary Bimonte, Frank Pepe’s Grandson tells host Frank Pinello that the oven is the original from the late 1800’s. Need to contact Colin Caplan. I hope his research verifies what my friend’s grandmother told her.

This New Haven Native is excited and looking forward to devouring this book. Outstanding segment, Kudos to Frank Pinello and Thanks New Haven Independent for providing video!