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2016-2017 Issue IV Local

A Slice of New Haven: Tales of a Crowded Pizza Market

If you opened a 1960s “Student Guide to New Haven,” you wouldn’t find a single pizza recommendation near Yale. Few restaurants were located near campus, even as New Haven’s food scene blossomed. When Niki Papadopoulos opened Pizza House in 1963, on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, his was one of the first eateries to cater to Yale students.

“Kids would line up down the street to get in,” Niki’s daughter and Pizza House’s current owner Chris Papadopoulos reflected to The Politic.

Pizzerias have been around New Haven since Pepe’s founding in 1925. For decades, their development tracked that of the Italian-American community, beginning on Wooster Street, nicknamed “pizza row.” Eventually, they popped up in the Hill neighborhood, and then East Rock, tracing the path of Italian-American families. A 1989 guide to New Haven recommended Clark’s Pizza, a Greek pizzeria up Whitney Avenue, and Naples, now Wall Street Pizza. These places marked the beginning of a saturated pizza market now surrounding Yale’s campus.

On a December morning, I visited Pizza House on the corner of Edgewood and Howe, a block behind Pierson College. Across from nondescript New England townhouses and a convenience store, Pizza House stands out with its bright red banner and neon lights that advertise its toasted grinders and founding year. Most of the seating inside is on stools at the long counter. I ordered a slice of cheese pizza. It was substantial, in every sense of the word—starting at the bottom, crispy in a deep-fried way, and supporting a puffy crust that almost leaked oil onto my hands. On top was a cooked and seasoned tomato sauce, and the whole thing was smothered in cheese that left a surprising tang in my mouth.

Two blocks away is Est Est Est Pizza, affectionately called “Est.” You’ve probably walked by it, across the street from The Study at Yale. The outside is gleaming wood, and on weekend nights the interior is brightly visible through its huge windows. I asked to try their most popular pizza, and after some back-and-forth, men behind the counter offered me a slice with buffalo chicken and chunky blue cheese, covered in a heavy layer of buffalo sauce and mozzarella. The crust was New York style—not nearly thick enough to hold its weight, even when folded in half.

Empire Pizza’s two star rating on Yelp made me dubious before I stepped in the door. The place is down Whalley Avenue, just before the Marriott Courtyard and easy to miss with its small storefront. I couldn’t quite assign a style to the cheese pizza I ordered. The closest comparison I could think of was Papa John’s—a thick, doughy crust, an abundance of cheese, and barely noticeable tomato sauce squished between. I asked one of the co-owners, Moh Ameg, what else he would recommend from the menu. He pointed me towards the Empire Bread, one of their specials. This was a twist on garlic bread: a fluffy toasted roll topped with freshly cut tomatoes, garlic spread, and cheese that didn’t overwhelm everything else.

You wouldn’t know it from the pizzas I tasted, but these three pizzerias have plenty in common: they were all founded by immigrant families; they all cater in part to the Yale students who have always been their customers; and they all sell pizza somewhat different from what we associate with “New Haven pizza” — charred crust, a chewy texture, and a sprinkle of pecorino romano.

Pizza House is off the beaten track for most Yale students. Today it serves mainly Yale employees, students living off-campus, and Chapel West neighborhood residents. When it first opened, the restaurant became an institution for Yale students, who played cards and studied in the restaurant, taking advantage of its late closing time at three in the morning. “The Sunday of graduation weekend, graduates and alums would bring their kids here” to see where they had studied, said Chris Papadopoulos.

Niki had chosen to open a pizza restaurant in New Haven because, as Chris put it, “it just seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“He was looking for an independent opportunity. He’d been working on a farm after coming from Greece in the early fifties, and he lived in Uncasville at the YMCA,” Chris explained.

Pizza House was one of many pizzerias opened by Greek immigrants in New England at the time.

“Bill Captain was a man who helped to open several pan-style pizza, the first in this area,” Chris said. One of those pizzerias was Est.

Another pizzeria opened by Greek immigrants in the area, Yorkside, was founded by the Koutroumanis family in 1977 after they had already opened other pizza restaurants in the area. These two—Pizza House and Yorkside—were part of a flood of Greek pizzerias and diners that emerged in New England after World War II. Thousands of Greek immigrants came to the United States, seeking an escape from the devastation of World War II and the Greek Civil War. Many started their own pizzerias or bought ones owned by retiring Italian-Americans.

In its early days, Pizza House only served a ten-inch pie on a brown ‘papyrus’ paper plates. Four small pizzas cost sixty cents each, and a fifth came free.

“Students would get the five pizzas, sell four, and keep the free one for themselves,” Chris said. Today the prices have gone up and they sell by the slice, but they still adhere to a strict cash-only policy and make pizza the same way they’ve always done it.

“Start to finish, no shortcuts. It’s labor intensive,” Chris added. Every morning they proof the dough—letting it rise—and then refrigerate it, estimating how much they will need for the day.

“If we sell out of pizza, that’s it,” Chris said. The restaurant has also stayed in the family—Chris took over from her father and uncle, and her daughter now works there too.

But even if the pizza is the same, a lot has changed. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Yale students stopped making the walk to Howe Street. The Papadopoulos family pinpoints the turning point as the May Day protests of 1970, which they say led to Yale students staying closer to campus. The Chapel West district has changed, and struggled, since then.

“We stuck it out. Today the presence of the Yale community is getting stronger,” Chris said, as more Yale employees move into the area. “Our neighborhood is a unique blend. When everyone comes together here, it’s copacetic. There aren’t too many places where that happens.”

Both Est and Empire have benefitted from Yale students’ return to off-campus eateries in the late 1990s. Ayman Gebril bought Est from its previous owner in 1996, about a decade after its establishment, and remodeled the restaurant completely. “I want this to be a friendly place for Yale students to hang out. They’re good customers, and we never have any problems,” he said.

The marketing has been effective, as has Est’s proximity to late-night destinations.

“I ended up there because of its proximity to Sig Nu and convenient late-night hours, as well as the slices [being] displayed enticingly so that you can see them from the wintry streets of New Haven,” Lucy Tomasso ’19 said. “It has continued to serve as my late-night pizza place of choice.”

“I chose to start a pizza shop in New Haven because I knew people around here liked it, even though there is competition,” Gebril said.

Although he has worked in the pizza industry for more than twenty years, Gebril is also trained in classical French cuisine and graduated from culinary school in Egypt.

“I moved to the U.S. and realized that there is not much French cuisine here, so I learned how to make pizza myself,” Gebril said. He has owned and operated several other restaurants in the New Haven area. Most recently, Est’s popularity prompted him to launch a “Pizza Truck” that now caters events.

Empire, while still close to campus, is less frequented by students. Its clientele, as a result, skews more towards New Haven locals. The pizzeria has been around for fifteen years, but Moh Ameg has only been in the pizza business for two.

“The boss, Tarke Rage, he wanted to make pizza and Italian food, so he opened this up,” Ameg said. Despite the competition, he said, “business is good. I’ve always worked with pizza, and this is nothing different.”

With so many competitors, Est and Pizza House both rely the quality of their ingredients to set themselves apart.

“Quality is the one word I would use,” Gebril said. “It has a personal touch. I am never stingy, I use the best cheese, and the best tomatoes, and I do it myself.”

Freshness is the buzzword at Pizza House, too.

“We blend our own sauce, and use unique cheese, we get it in forty-pound blocks,” Chris Papadopoulos said.

At Empire Pizza, Ameg shrugged at what made the pizza unique.

“It’s Italian, homemade,” was all he said. But he showed the menu to highlight their selection of grinders, burgers, spaghetti, and stuffed bread. During my time sitting in the restaurant, I did not see any customers order pizza. Instead, dishes like Empire Bread fuel the business.

“I try to make us more business by sending around menus, showing people all the food we have,” Ameg said.

Pizza House relies on its decades-old legacy of serving the Yale community. The Papadopoulos family shared stories of how people bring visiting relatives there, to show off an authentic New Haven institution.  

“We are to locals what Pepe’s is to tourists,” explained Zena Papadopoulos, Chris’s daughter and the third generation working at the pizzeria. At Empire, Amag said that mailing menus, its reputation, and regular foot traffic brings enough business to keep the place going.

“It’s not hard,” Amag said. “Work is work, and everyone likes pizza.”