How clam pizza, with all its charms, remained trapped in New Haven for most of a century is a mystery that may never be unraveled. At least it has escaped now. For the past decade or so, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, the 93-year-old establishment said to have invented the regional delicacy, has been exporting it to its other branches in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
There is also a small cult of the clam pie among New York pizzaioli. It has become a fixture at Lombardi’s and some Staten Island pizzerias, as well as inspiring lovingly considered tributes at Pasquale Jones, Motorino and the Clam.
I have eaten most of them, and happily, but on a recent trip to Connecticut I was led to what I now realize is the clam pie against which all others should be measured. It is baked at Zuppardi’s Apizza in the city of West Haven. Unlike the coal ovens used to fire New Haven’s more famous “abeetz,” to use the Connecticut-Neapolitan dialect, the ovens at Zuppardi’s are fired by gas. As a result, Zuppardi’s pies are not nearly as blackened as the ones from Pepe’s, but the crust still bulges with air pockets and emerges with a pleasingly dry, thin and crackery crunch.
Zuppardi’s tops its clam pizza (market price, typically $32.45 for a medium pie) with fresh garlic, olive oil, dried oregano, cracked red pepper and littlenecks. Smaller clams may be opaque when they reach the table. Larger specimens will be just warmed through. All will taste as if they had just been shucked, as in fact they were. Opening clams to order means that the clam pizza takes longer than Zuppardi’s other specialties, like the plain pie (tomato sauce, grated cheese, no mozzarella), itself worth a detour from Interstate 95, which rumbles by about a cherrystone’s throw away.