Friday, August 15, 2014

Destination New Haven: Evolution of Clam Pizza

Fresh tomato and white clam pizzas from Pepe's

I was recently roped into a recruiting trip to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Having never been, I did some research on the one distinctive aspect of New Haven cuisine that the area is renowned for--pizza, or "apizza" as it is sometimes referred to locally.

New Haven is home to the Big Three pizza joints. Sally's Apizza and Frank Pepe Pizza Napoletana (affectionately referred to as Pepe's) are within blocks of each other, not too far from Yale's campus. Modern Apizza is off on its own, but still close to school. My original plan was to taste test at least two of the Big Three, but Modern was under renovation and Sally's was closed on the days I was in town. Instead, I pivoted to a comparison between the oldest, Pepe's, and one of the new kids on the block, Bar.


Even on a Monday night at 9:30 when school is out, there was still a line out the door at Pepe's. Perhaps because Sally's is closed on that day, the wait may have been longer than normal, but I imagine any weekend would bring huge crowds to the inventor of the white clam pizza. The brick coal oven is the most dominant presence in the restaurant. Staffed by cooks with enormously long pizza peels, the kitchen was white and looked a bit sterile. We ordered a forgettable beer and a Foxon Park White Birch Soda, another main draw. All of the Big Three serve this Connecticut soda. Think refreshing spearmint sarsaparilla.

Of course we ordered the white clam pizza, a combination of romano cheese, littleneck clams, oregano and garlic. The clams were unfortunately a bit sparse for the $12 twelve-inch pizza. While solid, the clam pizza's flavor was almost completely dominated by garlic. My favorite aspect was actually the chewiness of the crust. In addition, we ordered the fresh tomato pie, a seasonal pizza topped with locally grown tomatoes. This tomatoes were deliciously sweet, a perfectly serviceable pizza.


Even though I say "new," Bar has been open since 1996, which, in the restaurant business, is long enough to develop an impressive pedigree. But compared to the Big Three, from the 1920s and 1930s, Bar was the hip, youngster. Even though it is relatively new, Connecticut food writer Amy Kundrat thought to include it in her Definitive Guide to New Haven Pizza, which was good enough to bring here.

That stack of wood is just for show. This oven burns natural gas, unlike the coal and oil ovens of the Big Three. Unlike the other pizza places, Bar also brews its own beer and becomes a nightclub at night. The clientele are younger and probably the kind of people that the clientele at the Big Three complain about. Yet Bar doesn't detour too far from its main purpose. The only food on the menu is pizza and one salad.

As a benchmark, we got the white clam pizza ($18.75). I was aware that Bar is famous for its mashed potatoes topping, but since it best accompanies a white pie and I couldn't stomach another white, I stuck with the white clam and ordered a red pizza with sausage, mushrooms and basil. While the ingredients in the clam pizza were essentially the same as the one from Pepe's, the key game-changer is that the clam pizza at Bar came with a wedge of lemon. The squeeze of citrus brought the seafood to life and cut through the grease and garlic. Stylewise, the pizza also featured an ultra thin crust, which could be a plus if you don't want to feel weighed down.


For me, Pepe's stood for the traditional. Little has changed over the years, though I believe Sally's has struck even closer to its roots. Bar, with its bare brick industrial styling, looked modern, and I daresay even more modern than Modern Apizza. Between Pepe's and Bar, I'd choose Bar, but I will say that Pepe's is worth a trip to get an idea of Bar's lineage. I suppose the true conclusion is to make sure you're in town long enough to eat at each of them.

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
157 Wooster Street
New Haven, CT 06511
(203) 865-5762

254 Crown Street
New Haven, CT 06510
(203) 785-1111

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Destination Croatia: The Best Lunch in Opatija

If you ever find yourself in the coastal resort town of Opatija on the Istrian peninsula in Croatia, you owe it to yourself to visit Tavern Istranka. Admittedly, I only had one meal while passing through Opatija on my way to Slovenia, but I was so confident in the quality of my lunch at Istranka that I challenge anyone to show me some place better. Of course, that means you might have to fly me back out to the Gulf of Kvarner to prove your point.
With only an hour and a half in Opatija and knowing the laid-back serving speed in Croatian restaurants, we didn't have much time to find a place to eat. Luckily, we managed to find Istranka, guided by a snippet from my Lonely Planet guide. The restaurant's homey decor matched its relaxed and hospitable waitstaff. It even rubbed off on the patrons. A local man at a nearby table actually asked if we minded if he smoked, even though we were seated in the outdoor patio.

Located along the Adriatic, the Istria region in Croatia is similar in climate to Northern Italy. As such, it is renowned for its wines, olive oils, seafood, and truffles. We had already sampled several truffle dishes in the region, but my brother and I had to follow our nose to that pungent, earthy scent each time. 

House made fuzi pasta with shaved truffles

From my seat out on the patio, I had a clear line of sight directly through the door to the kitchen. I saw the plate of Istrian fuzi pasta, something of a cross between penne and farfalle in shape, with a light cream sauce. The cook stood over the plate with a truffle in one hand and a grater in the other. He generously layered shavings until he put down the grater, satisfied that he had given up enough of the local bounty. He looked up, our eyes met, and he apologetically resumed grating for several more seconds. I'm not sure what expression I had on my face, but the meaning was universal. While each component--the pasta, the sauce, the truffles--were dominant in their own right, the strength in this dish came in the simplicity of the components. If you ever need a reminder that great ingredients make a great dish, here it is.

Octopus goulash, polenta

Croatian cuisine also has a tradition of game. My eyes were drawn to the venison goulash immediately. Such a flavorful cut of meat in a slow simmered stew, I knew it would be a hit. Unfortunately, there was no venison that day, and the waiter's offering of beef failed to tantalize. Instead, we ordered the octopus goulash based on his second recommendation. Odd, you say? Slow cooked octopus would come out tough and the flavor would be cooked out of it? Those same thoughts ran through our head, but we rolled the dice and had no regrets. Whatever the cook did to the seafood, it came tender and the flavors permeated the stew.

Monkfish in white wine sauce

If you've eaten with me enough, you'll know that I'm a fan of monkfish. To call it the "poor man's lobster" demeans the unique taste and texture of this ugly, ugly fish. This tasty dish had the interesting effect of feeling light, yet also very filling at the same time.

Tripe in tomato sauce

I'm not as huge a fan of tripe as my brother. I prefer my tripe and my intestines in spicy hot pot-type dishes. While this didn't come spicy, the effect was the same. The tripe took on the flavors of the slightly sweet tomato and the other seasonings in the sauce. This was a delightful surprise for me. I didn't think I would be a fan, but I found myself going back to fish for more pieces throughout the meal. We were both disappointed when we came up with an empty fork.

Istranka is not on Marsala Tita, the main street on which most of the hotels are located. Instead, it's just off a small alley. Keep your eyes peeled for a posted sign on Marsala Tita directing you up a slight incline. Given Opatija's typical visitors, there seemed to be plenty of mediocre restaurants catering to those with more money than taste. I highly recommend you take a few extra minutes to find Istranka and sit yourself down to a no-frills meal.

Tavern Istranka
TripAdvisor link since the Istranka website seems to be down
Opatija HR-51410 Croatia
+385 051 271 835


Monday, November 12, 2012

Chow Mein Means Stir-Fried Noodles

This is not chow mein

These days it seems like I only blog when I have something to rant about. If I keep it up, this might just merge with my other blog. But nothing raises my ire about Chinese restaurants as much as serving "chow mein" without noodles.

More... Recovering from a wicked bout of the flu, I was anxiously awaiting my first meal in three days. At some point after the nausea was gone, I was just trying to see how long I could go without eating. Once I finally regained my appetite, I ordered Chinese.

Growing up on the West Coast, ordering "chow mein" meant only the slightest bit of ambiguity. You're either getting the thick, soft noodle, or the crispy, thin noodle. The thin, crispy noodle is also known as Hong Kong style chow mein. Out here on the East Coast, through whatever asinine etymological perversion, apparently chow mein can mean no noodles at all. Instead, what I got was a glob of brown sauce and mixed-in bits and pieces, known in Chinese as 雜碎. Yes, this was chop-suey.

This is not the first time I've seen this monstrosity in Chinese kitchens. And to add insult to injury, I even found this order slip in the take-out bag.

The restaurant had even written on there "large pork fried noodles." Well technically they wrote "large meat fried face" but the Chinese word for face (面) is a homonym for the word noodle (麵) and was probably substituted for kitchen short-hand. Either that, or they realized the sick joke they were playing on the unsuspecting customers.

Having lived in New York for several years now, I've known that East Coast chow mein is actually called "lo mein." I just thought that this restaurant, which billed itself as authentic, wouldn't stand for this sort of linguistic atrocity.