Big Green Pizza Rolls Into Humphrey’s

Lucy Gellman PhotoBig Green Truck Pizza is planning to lay down brick-and-mortar roots — and feed the surrounding Jocelyn Square neighborhood the way owner Doug Coffin remembers Humphrey’s restaurant doing in the 1990s. 

Coffin bases his mobile pizza business next door to the former Humphrey’s restaurant, the historic Piurek Building at 175 Humphrey St. Now Coffin is in the process of creating a new restaurant at shuttered 175 Humphrey with an old-fashioned theme.

The building housed Humphrey’s bar and restaurant for a near-historic run before it became Carissa’s Cafe in 2012 and then Park Place East in 2015.

Distancing themselves from those latter versions, Coffin and business partners Domenic Giannotti and chef Robin Bodak said they want to create a pizzeria, bar, and special events venue that functions as an outcropping of Coffin’s Big Green Truck Pizza catering operation and adds Mediterranean flavor to the city’s culinary landscape. (They haven’t yet settled on a name for their restaurant, which they hope to open by the fall.)

Side-stepping a lone deep fryer, desserts case and stacks of chairs and tables during a recent visit to the space, Coffin, Giannotti and Bodak described their planned renovation. They plan to have 119 seats over three rooms.

In a front, street-facing room, the taps will be rechristened with local beer and the bar replaced with a hi-top setup. as fragrant pies, salads and small plates are marched from the kitchen to customers 21 and over.

In a second room, Park Place East’s old kitchen will be demolished, making room for “19 and 20 year olds” and families to fill the space away from the bar. Where errant machinery—all of which the restaurant will end up using, Bodak said—currently sits in the middle of the floor, there will be tables, hopefully filled with patrons splitting pies and ordering non-alcoholic drinks. Giannotti and Coffin said the route to the bathroom won’t cut through the bar area, to minimize the risk of underage drinking. 

“I think you can safely say that a lot of New Haveners had their first drink here illegally [in earlier versions of the space], and we won’t be the place for that,” Coffin vowed.

The third room will house an operable dining space and adjoining 800 square-foot kitchen, reservable for birthdays, brunches, bridal parties, and baby showers (among other celebratory events that can, but do not have to, include booze). The memories of Humphrey’s past remain there, beckoning from the original, dust-covered bar and high ceiling beams. The room’s dark recess will become a kitchen with wood-fired pizza ovens and Bodak at the helm. At the back of the space, a door will be inserted into the current wall, allowing staff access between Big Green Truck Pizza offices and the new venue. 

With the renovations and a menu in the works, the business partners are working to recreate some of what they remember from Humphrey’s circa 1990, while adding their own trademark. In those years, Bodak owned a business on upper State Street, and used to bring her infant son to Humphrey’s on lunch breaks. She recalled many a sandwich and burger eaten with a chatty, swelling lunchtime crowd of students, workers, and neighbors. She said she wants to resuscitate that mood — though, instead of burgers, the meals will feature a lot more dough and hot cheese.

“It’s definitely a pizzeria,” she said. The feel will be Mediterranean—the whole coast, not just Italy and Greece, she and Coffin were quick to say. Think about the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, she said; all those flavors have a place in her kitchen. 

Coffin’s truck operation caters parties and outdoor farmer’s markets. For years now people have asked him when he would open a brick-and-mortar place. Now that he’s doing it, he hopes the reopened restaurant weaves together the Jocelyn Square and East Rock neighborhoods that have been split by I-91.

Coffin was fond of Humphrey’s in its heyday, he said. That changed by the time he bought the next door property at 530 East St. eight years ago and successor operations had taken over the restaurant. Between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m., he would observe patrons drive to the bar, finish food in their cars, and head into the bar to drink and dance for a few hours. It didn’t make the neighborhood feel like a vibrant place to be, he said; it attracted crime.

Coffin is waiting on a final vote from the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) on request for approval of its restaurant liquor license; the board wants more information on the venue’s entertainment plans. An advisory report from the City Plan Commission advised approval of the project; neighbors and Big Green Truck customers have signed petitions in support of the plan, and Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg expressed excitement for the new venue at last week’s BZA meeting. Assuming he receives approval, Coffin said, he hopes to open the new restaurant in August.

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posted by: robn on April 6, 2017  3:03pm

Coffin is a pillar of the community, great chef and, lest it be forgotten, a national pioneer in the pizza truck business.

posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on April 6, 2017  3:34pm

Very nice, that place has had a ton of turnover and is right in that East Rock-to-Fair Haven gap where (some) people seem to stop walking/exploring, would love to see a popular restaurant over there.

posted by: westville man on April 6, 2017  6:57pm

All 3 partners are top notch. Once again, East Rock is very fortunate.

posted by: Teachergal on April 6, 2017  9:11pm

So exciting. I think most of us spent time at Humohreys for a burger and a beer. As a teacher, many of us would go for a few drinks on Friday to debrief and enjoy a few laughs. so glad Doug Coffin and his partners are opening up there. Good luck. I’ll come out to support you!!! 💚👯🎉

posted by: Downtown Linda on April 7, 2017  8:01am

What a great addition to East Rock/Fair Haven.  So happy it’s going to affordable and family-friendly.  Can’t wait because the three partners are a class act!

posted by: BenBerkowitz on April 7, 2017  10:26am

This is great for Jocelyn Square and the Upper State Street neighborhoods

posted by: stuffed cabbage on April 8, 2017  8:00am

Go Doug! Along with your
2 great partners. I’m SO glad you’ll be waking up what has been a grim corner, and waking it up with some fine, fine, pies. Beat wishes for a giant success!

posted by: LivingInNewHaven on April 9, 2017  8:50am

Can’t wait!! Love this guy’s pizza!!!

posted by: TVidal on April 11, 2017  6:08am

When I moved to East Rock from the suburbs, 30 years ago, the vitality I sought was on display in Humphries. Over the years, through a mentoring program at East Rock School, I awoke to the real pain in the ghetto life hidden beyond Jocelyn Park. It remains for us who can afford ten dollar burgers to figure out how to pull the levers of privilege and help the project tenants move up and out. Will there be a back room at the new Humphries? Will we gather there to talk about ways to fix our sick democracy? Not until the empathy factor kicks in.