Jack Flagge and his family held the inauguration of their new pizza restaurant in East Rock during a blizzard. They were shocked when customers started rolling in.
Flagge, his wife Janet Flagge, his daughter Alexa Flagge and her boyfriend Andrew Holmes opened One 6 Three Pizza Joint on the corner of Foster and Willow Streets this past February. Despite the risk of bringing another pizza place to the nation’s self-described pizza capitol, they’ve worked quickly toward claiming their spot in the top tier.
Pizza runs in the owners’ veins. Andrew Holmes has worked in pizza restaurants since he was 15, starting off washing dishes and busing tables and graduating to pizza making. His girlfriend’s father Jack has at least a couple of decades on him; he owned a deli in East Haven with a pizza place inside in 1980.
Jack and Andrew’s father Jim Holmes, a retired engineer, put up the money for the venture. At a recent visit to the restaurant, the four of them talked over one another in excitement at telling the story of their business venture, each taking turns to jump in and insert a correction or joke.
Andrew and Alexa had “harassed” Jack for years to start a brick-and-mortar business, but he had always hesitated at the idea, Andrew said.
Running a fleet of four pizza catering trucks, Jack had taken a few months off every year to head to Florida, and he balked at the thought of giving up those vacations to move the business indoors full time. But last fall, Andrew and Alexa started searching for a new address.
They first considered adding to pizza row on Wooster Street, the location of the legendary Pepe’s and Sally’s Apizza, since the former Italian restaurant Anastasio’s went out of business. They decided against it. The competition didn’t bother them. But the lack of parking in the area and early bedtime of Wooster Square neighbors made them reconsider.
When they saw the storefront at 163 Foster St. was free, Alexa and Andrew jumped at their real-estate chance. The previous restaurant in the space was also a pizzeria. But the eatery had fallen into bad shape.
They could have done a cursory renovation in a couple of weeks. They decided instead to take the two months for a more thorough set of changes and the installation of a wood-fired oven.
That transition has been a challenge. Andrew started using the wood-fired oven, instead of a gas oven, when he started working for Jack on his pizza trucks in 2011. “That’s how I got introduced to Jack and Alexa,” he said.
Learning how to cook pizzas in the oven without burning them is a skill that takes a lot of trial and error, Alexa said. The entire oven has to be the same temperature for a pizza to cook thoroughly.
But if the floor is too hot and the air above it isn’t hot enough, the bottom of the pizza burns, Jack said.
He pointed to the oven behind the counter, where the flames curved around the roof in convection like a fiery cupped hand.
Current manager Chris Giori is learning that on the job. He laughed as he admitted to scooping out quite a few charred circles of bread when he started in the winter.
“It takes five hours to get it hot enough” to cook a pizza, Andrew said. Pizzas then take two minutes to cook — twice as long as in a gas oven.
Months after Andrew started working for Jack in 2011, he and Alexa started dating, when she was 21 and he was 24.
Owning and managing a restaurant as a couple has been another challenge of the business, Alexa said. “Stress and a relationship and a restaurant is rough,” she said. But the couple skipped the step of introducing one another to the parents—Alexa’s dad vetted and hired her boyfriend.
Alexa used her own discerning palette as a tool to design the restaurant’s menu, which includes many of her own favorites. “That menu is my baby,” she said. “It’s all stuff I like.” Roasted brussel sprouts toppings. Poutine, with cheese curds shipped from Wisconsin. A chicken and waffle sandwich. Lots and lots of bacon in its own section titled “For The Pigs.”
Some recipes were modified over the years, brought to the brick-and-mortar store from Jack’s pizza trucks.
All ingredients are fresh, never frozen, and sauteed for flavor before cooked on top of the pizzas. Twelve-inch pizzas cost around $13; 16-inch pizzas cost between $17 and $19.
Despite the new influx of pizza places claiming to continue to the New Haven wood-fired ah-beetz tradition, One 6 Three’s owners consider their variety comparable to the top tier.
“People are shocked at how good we are,” Alexa said.
John Kennedy, for instance, regularly two-times his true love Modern Pizza, sneaking away from his law office on Long Wharf to lunch at One 6 Three instead. Plus, it can be difficult to find a place to park on State Street near Modern Apizza, unlike around Foster and Willow Streets.
“I love some of the combos,” Kennedy said. “I haven’t had a bad one.”
On Tuesday, he had a few slices of a “Breaking My Meatballs” with meatballs, ricotta, hot cherry peppers and hand-crushed tomato sauce. The crust at One 6 Three is delicious, he said.
That’s not an accident. Andrew has spent a lot of time pondering the physical chemistry of the dough—trying for a bread that’s thin enough to qualify as New Haven pizza, but not so thin that it folds like paper under the toppings.
Peter Kozodoy and Alex Winter walk a tenth of a mile from their 85 Willow St. offices at Gem Advertising to 163 Foster St., sometimes once a week for their pizza fix. Before One 6 Three opened this past winter, they walked to Modern Apizza or DaLegna Pizza on State Street—closer to a mile from work.
“Every pizza place has a distinct flavor,” Kozodoy said. One 6 Three is comparable to and closer than their other options.
Kozodoy enjoys the “Memphis” pizza, which incorporates a seemingly dissonant pulled pork, caramelized onions, feta cheese and fresh blueberries and tops it off with homemade barbecue sauce. That’s a popular pick, Jack and Alexa said.
When One 6 Three first opened in the winter, Gem Advertising’s graphic designer used to barter for her pizza, offering dogwalking services in exchange for pizza. Jack and Winter laughed when they recalled the memory.
One 6 Three owners have a good relationship with their customers. They planted an herb garden with basil and parsley right outside the store, adjacent to a watering station for dogs with two metal bowls of clean water. Neighbors trim the garden unasked; Jack was once delighted to see a couple hesitate and then excitedly pluck a few basil leaves to transport back home.
They plan to keep building on the foundation they have. The busiest night of the week fluctuates—mostly Fridays, but other times Tuesdays are “popping,” Alexa said.
Populated by Yale graduate students, professors and affiliates, the East Rock neighborhood is transient. “A lot of the people move out, then move in,” Jack said. “We lost a customer the other day,” who moved to Texas. A U-Haul pulled up soon after to replace the tenant.
But they haven’t had to spend money on an advertising budget to draw their customers in. “From the beginning business was good,” Jack said. “It’s heavy pizza country.”