“…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment…”
I got a card yesterday from Tracy Medling. Tracy is a great painter and a great friend. We both moved to Portland from New Haven in the late 1970s. This morning I saw one of his paintings in Portland Magazine – three luminous red tomatoes.
Tracy and I grew up as next-door neighbors in a row of brownstones in New Haven’s Wooster Square. Wooster Square is famous for its pizza – the aroma hangs over the neighborhood in late afternoon like a smoky Neapolitan fog.
Immigrants from Naples and the Amalfi Coast settled in Wooster Square around the turn of the century. In 1925, Frank Pepe (left) opened his Pizzeria Napoletana (“Pepe’s” in New Haven-speak), and created a unique pizza characterized by a charred thin crust and luscious oblong contours.
Young Salvatore Consiglio learned the art of pizza from his uncle Frank Pepe. In 1938 he opened his own pizzeria a few doors down Wooster Street, and the eponymous Sally’s Apizza was born. The competition is friendly – all in la famiglia. But a heated debate rages among the locals as to which of these neighborhood eateries is superior, a culinary rivalry sometimes referred to as “pizza wars.”
In my own little epicurious opinion, Sally’s is the champ, senza dubbio. But I have an enduring attachment to Pepe’s signature pizza, the White Clam, made with fresh Rhode Island cherrystone clams, mozzarella, olive oil, fresh garlic, oregano … and bacon. No tomatoes, please – this is classic “White Pizza” and when you eat it, you hear the angels singing.
Legend has it that this divine pie was developed in the mid-1960s when Tracy and I were kids in New Haven. About the same age as Proust when he ate the sweetly iconic and clichéd Madeleines dunked in linden-flower tea.
Today, Sally’s looks almost exactly as it did back in the day. The “blue” portrait of Frank Sinatra, the knick-knacks, the mementos. Our favorite waitress, Sal’s wife “Flo,” is now a grandmother, but she still holds court at Sally’s. (Flo served us pitchers of warm yellow beer before we were exactly legal and for this she is much beloved.) That’s Flo on the left. I think she really liked the neighborhood kids – it sure wasn’t the size of our tips.
The pizza still arrives hot with its signature charred bottom on a big metal tray lined with parchment paper – wonderfully chewy and crisp with black bits that get all over your smiling face.
So. Despite its humble ethnic origins, this ripping regional Wooster Square specialty has earned prestigious prizes, including a highly coveted James Beard award. It has also been immortalized in “Doonesbury” by our former neighbor, Gary Trudeau. But for me, the smell of Sally’s and Pepe’s pizza wafting across the park will always capture the essence of childhood – delicious and dangerous, bountiful and endless. •