Having already made documentaries on ‘80s rock and animal rights, this eclectic local filmmaker is now turning his camera’s eye to New Haven’s nationally celebrated culinary delicacy, and to the three pizzerias that, he argues, do it the best.
“It comes down to one thing: passion,” Bechard said on a recent episode of WNHH’s “Deep Focus.” “When I make a film, I do it about a subject for which I am really passionate.”
Pizza, A Love Story, a feature-length documentary that Bechard and producers Colin Caplan and Dean Falcone have been working on for over a decade, is just that: a cri de cœur from three New Haveners who know in their hearts and in their taste buds that the history, influence and legacy of New Haven pizza can be told entirely through the stories of two pizzerias on Wooster Street and one on State Street.
Bechard, Caplan and Falcone are currently raising money on Kickstarter to help fund additional interviews, editing and post-production for the movie. They hope to have it finished and ready to screen by this summer’s New Haven Documentary Film Festival.
Pizza, A Love Story begins not in 1925, when Francesco “Frank” Pepe and his wife and brother opened their first pizza (or “apizza,” the Neapolitan pronunciation that anyone who has stared quizzically at a Sally’s or Modern takeout box should be familiar with) restaurant on Wooster Street, but rather several decades earlier, when an influx of Italian immigrants from the Amalfi Coast came to New Haven in the 1890s and found work at the Sargent lock factory, the Strouse, Adler corset factory, and other large manufacturers in the Wooster Square area.
Many of those migrants settled along Grand Avenue, the Hill, Oak Street, Water Street, and Wooster Street, where they opened bakeries with massive coal-fired ovens that produced charred, crusty bread for the surging immigrant workforce.
“The Italians ran 40 percent of the bakeries in New Haven,” Caplan said. “The pizzerias evolved from those bakeries.”
The local historian in the group, Caplan has written one book about New Haven pizza, is currently working on two more, and offers local pizza walking tours and biking tours through his company, Taste of New Haven.
Enterprising bakers like Angelo Gentile, Francesco Scelzo, and Frank Pepe experimented with flatbread with toppings, often serving it from food carts at nearby markets and when factory workers got out for lunch. According to Caplan, Scelzo opened New Haven’s first “Pizzeria Napoletana” on Fountain Street in 1915.
In 1925, Pepe opened his own pizza restaurant on Wooster Street, in the building that currently houses The Spot. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 led to a proliferation of pizzerias, as they could serve alcohol and stay open until 3 a.m. Modern Apizza was founded in 1934, and Sally’s Apizza in 1938.
“Pizza was a totally ethnic food for people coming out of southern Italy,” Caplan said, noting that, 100 years ago, only Italians coming from the Neapolitan region of Campagna really knew what pizza was. “The desire to bring something from their homeland, a missing link, a cultural connection, that’s the human condition. That is something we all want to find out.”
But Pizza, A Love Story is not just about the early-20th century history of Italian migration to New Haven. For Bechard, Caplan and Falcone, it’s also about how three pizzerias crafted a thin-crust, crispy, chewy concoction of flatbread, tomato and occasionally cheese that would become a staple of American culture, and that has earned New Haven a national reputation as a pizza mecca.
The movie tells the story of the creation of the pizza box, and of the origin of the photograph of Frank Pepe holding a pizza that still adorns the cardboard tops for Pepe’s takeout.
Bechard said that he has interviewed former mayor John DeStefano about the secret phone at Sally’s that let customers in the know skip the line to order a pie. He’s interviewed musician Lyle Lovett about how the best New Haven pizza is not just food, but truly a work of art. Bechard said that he’s still trying to get former Yale Law student Hillary Clinton on camera to talk about Sally’s, and that Bill may just make an appearance in the movie as well.
But the interviews are not just with celebrities and high-profile customers. Bechard said that he spoke to a Grand Avenue native named Helen who has been eating Modern pizza since the 1930s. And she’s not even Italian! He said that he spoke with State Street residents who recall getting out of school early and eating Modern while watching tanks roll down the street during the 1967 riots.
Falcone, a musician who has gigged around the country, said that pizza is the first thing that fellow musicians bring up when they learn that he hails from the Elm City. He said that almost every musician who plays a show in New Haven tries to figure out how to sneak over to Wooster Street between the soundcheck and the gig.
“I get that more than Yale,” Bechard agreed. “No question.”
On the most recent Daily Meal poll of the country’s top 101 pizza places, Sally’s ranked number eight, Modern number three, and Pepe’s number one.
“We have 1 percent of the population of New York City,” Bechard said. “And we get those kinds of votes. That says a lot.”
A ten-year labor of love, Pizza, A Love Story is a testament to these three New Haveners’ love for the pizza made in the city they call home.
When asked what would be their go-to pie for their last meal, these three passionate pizza lovers all voted for Sally’s.
“A small mozzarella at Sally’s,” Bechard said. “Sally’s plain garlic,” Falcone and Caplan agreed.
Falcone said that he grew up in Hamden, first tried Modern in his early 20s, and soon thereafter had a plain (i.e. just sauce and crust) at Sally’s that changed his life.
“Literally since I was 22 years old, every week at some point I am thinking about that pie,” Falcone said with a smile. “And that is really sad. Or it’s really awesome.”
Learn more about Pizza, A Love Story here. Click on the audio player below to listen to a recent interview with Bechard, Caplan and Falcone on WNHH’s “Deep Focus”.