Mike Zullo tossed a ball of pizza dough in the air, rolled it flat, and topped it with sauteed mushrooms and slices of yellow summer squash that had been prepared in an adjacent kitchen earlier in the day.
As he lifted the pizza into a massive wood-fired oven, customers just a few feet away flipped through a drinks menu that contains cocktails infused with syrups and infusions made in that very same kitchen.
Zullo was at work in Jocelyn Square’s newest reborn restaurant, Next Door. The connection among the pie, the libations, and the fresh veggies reflected the joint’s strategy — creating a sum greater than, but linked to, its parts.
Next Door is located at 175 Humphrey St., the former home of the restaurant Humphrey’s,
(with a storied history dating back to a Prohibition-era speakeasy) at the corner of Humphrey and East Street. A little over a year after getting its final zoning and building approvals from the city, Next Door officially opened to the public on June 6.
The restaurant is open for dinner every day of the week except Tuesday. Its hours are 4:30 p.m. to midnight on Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday, and Monday, and 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Robin Bodak, Doug Coffin and Domenic Giannotti are the three co-owners of the pizzeria, bar and restaurant. Coffin is no stranger to the Jocelyn Square corner, or to New Haven’s culinary scene more broadly. A member of the now-defunct New Haven Food Co-Op in the late 1960s, Coffin has spent the past 15 years running Big Green Truck Pizza, a fleet of six wood-fired pizza trucks based out of an adjacent building at 530 East St.
The three different sections of Next Door’s menu correspond pretty neatly with each co-owner’s area of expertise.
Coffin runs the pizza side of the business alongside the restaurant’s two primary pizza makers, Robert Mason, formerly of Frank Pepe’s, and Mike Zullo, formerly of Kitchen Zinc.
Coffin said the additional kitchen space afforded by a brick-and-mortar restaurant allows him and his staff to improve upon some of the pies he’s used to making and serving from the back of one of his big green trucks.
The barbecue chicken pizza now has a new coleslaw-style dressing that offsets the chicken’s sweetness with a tart flavor from the slaw, he said. He said the restaurant’s version of the buffalo chicken pie now includes thinly sliced red and green peppers.
But it’s the pizza area’s collaboration with the kitchen, he said, that truly distinguishes Next Door’s pies from anyone else’s in New Haven.
“No one roasts their own chicken and shreds it to put on their own pizza,” he said. “No one in their right mind would chop fresh garlic for a whole night’s turn” of business.
But at Next Door, he said, they prioritize fresh ingredients, made from scratch, connecting the kitchen and the pizzeria.
That’s because Bodak, who in addition to being a co-owner serves as the kitchen’s executive chef alongside Chelsea Peterson, is committed to making all of the menu’s food from scratch with fresh ingredients, eschewing canned and boxed goods.
“When we built this kitchen,” Bodak said, “everyone said, ‘Where’s your dry storage? Where are the boxes?’”
Bodak and Peterson said instead of using preserved goods, they collaborate with farmers markets’ like New Haven’s CitySeed along with other nearby farms and food sources to get the freshest meat and produce available.
Bodak and Peterson first met as colleagues at Judy’s Bakery in Branford, where Bodak oversaw pastries, brunch, and finances, while Peterson, still a high school student at the time, worked the front counter. Before moving over to Next Door to serve as the restaurant’s executive chefs, Bodak and Peterson ran the catering arm of Coffin’s Big Green Truck Pizza operation.
Bodak and Peterson described the goal for their kitchen as producing fresh, accessible food that is not fancy and instead lives up to the monikers of “twists on classics” and “eat with your hands, but done right.”
The small plates menu includes roasted carrots with tahini, short ribs with Semolina “Cornbread,” and crispy duck confit with black lentils.
In the kitchen on Wednesday, Bodak stood over a steaming pan of onions that she was “sweating” as she prepared to make a poblano cream sauce with roasted baby corn and finger lime. Lying across one of the kitchen counters were large trays of flattened corn and chives that she and her staff planned on rolling up into small balls, frying, and serving as corn arancini.
“Our commitment is to be really honest about our food,” Bodak said. When asked what she meant by “honest,” she said, “Real food. Don’t say you made it when you didn’t.”
Bodak and Peterson’s kitchen is also closely connected with the restaurant’s bar, which is overseen by Next Door’s third co-owner, Domenic Giannotti.
Giannotti said he grew up making pizza at his father’s West Haven pizza joint, Domenic’s Apizza. He was one of the first drivers for Coffin’s Big Green Truck Pizza business nearly 15 years ago, and recently opened a bar by the beach in West Haven called Dive Bar.
At Next Door, Giannotti and his bartending staff oversee 32 draft beers on top, ranging from sours to ciders to stouts and including local breweries like Counterweight and Two Roads. Giannotti said 12 of those craft beer taps rotate on a regular basis.
He also said the kitchen plays a key role in provide scratch-made ingredients for some of their craft cocktails, including cucumber syrups and infusions for their tequila.
“We’re not just opening tubs from a distributor,” he said.
The restaurant itself is laid out into four main areas: a small bar that abuts Humphrey Street, a larger seating area, another bar and performance space anchored by a massive wood-fired pizza oven, and the back kitchen, where Bodak and Peterson their staff prepare each night’s meals.
“I’ve spent the last several years in pizza trucks doing parties at houses,” Coffin said. He said at Next Door, he now gets an opportunity to see people from all over the city come to one spot to enjoy fresh pizza, drinks and small plates. “It’s reawakening connections,” he said about the restaurant’s brick-and-mortar home. “It’s getting people together in a new place.”