On any given day on Wooster Street, a line of tourists and locals overflows onto the sidewalk outside of Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana.
Since it opened in 1925, food critics and patrons alike have touted Pepe’s pizza as the best pizza around, at least, in New Haven. Pepe’s has been featured as one of the best pizza spots in America on the Food Network and in Details magazine.
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But a recent experiment performed by two Yale undergraduates pitted Pepe’s pizza against that of five other New Haven pizza restaurants — and the result would likely shock Pepe’s loyalists. The famed tomato pie took fifth place in a test in which subjects sampled slices without knowing the associated restaurant and third place in another trial where subjects knew what kind of pizza they were eating. This climb from fifth to third place, the students said, affirmed their suspicions — reputation matters.
Katie Edwards ’09 and Kyli Hanson ’09 said their experiment was designed to reveal whether a restaurant’s popularity sways consumers’ perception of taste, an idea that evolved from a discussion in their seminar, Experimental Economics with Professor Shyam Sunder. Sunder and other students in the class served as the 12 subjects for the blind taste test.
“We thought it was strange that people wait in line for hours for Pepe’s,” Edwards said about how they first developed the idea for their experiment.
The taste test Edwards and Hanson administered to their class was twofold: during the first trial, the subjects were not told which restaurant’s pizza they were testing, but the pizzas were identified in the second trial. During both trials, the subjects were blindfolded to ensure judgment was made on taste alone without visual biases.
The subjects were asked in each of the trials to judge the pizza based on five criteria: aroma, sauce (taste or amount), greasiness, crispiness and cheesiness. Then they assigned an overall rating to each pizza on a scale of 1-5, with five being the best.
Edwards said she and Hanson came up with a couple of the criteria on the “taste scale” themselves, and derived other standards from their friends.
In this uninformed trial, Modern Apizza on State Street ranked first, followed by A-1, Est Est Est, Papa John’s, Pepe’s and Yorkside.
But when the subjects were told whose pizza they were consuming in the second test, the rankings shifted. Modern still came out on top, followed by Est-Est-Est, Pepe’s, Yorkside, A-1 and Papa John’s.
Hanson said she was surprised with the result. Given that participants were unfamiliar with Modern’s product, she said it was interesting that their pizza topped the list in both trials.
“Most people haven’t tried it,” she said. Edwards added, “It’s interesting that Papa John’s did better than Pepe’s in the first round.”
But the manager of Modern, winner of both experimental trials, said a favorable bias does not exist for Pepe’s among locals. He said he does not think Pepe’s is widely considered the best New Haven pizza. The manager, Steve, declined to offer his full name.
Instead, he said his own restaurant was advertised as the “Best Pizza in New Haven” for years. After all, Modern has won the New Haven Advocate Reader’s Poll award for “Best Pizza” every year since 1999.
Although Modern is not a familiar name for some Yalies who rarely transgress campus grounds, it remains a favorite among New Haven residents.
Jeanne Snow ’11, born and raised in New Haven, said Modern is her personal favorite and the top pick for many locals.
Still, she said Pepe’s thrives on a reputation grounded in rich history and unique specialties like their clam pizza.
“It has to do with the fact that they’ve been around for so long,” she said. “It’s kind of a cultural experience.”
Modern is a hot spot for New Haven natives, but Modern’s manager said the restaurant has earned a reputation amongst Yalies as well. Frequent patrons from Yale, he said, remain devoted.
“Our customers are very local based,” he said. “But we do have a lot of students from Yale come in, especially the Yale football team.”
Despite the popularity of both Modern and Pepe’s, price and location matters more to some Yalies. On weekend nights, pizzerias close to campus, like Yorkside and A-1, attract the most student patrons.
Snow said she never ventured to Yorkside while growing up because of the poor pizza quality. But places like A-1, she said, are obvious staples to the Yale community because of their close proximity and cheap costs.
Although these factors were eliminated in delivering the pizza to participants in the experiment, Hanson acknowledged their importance in reality.
“Pizza is such a huge part of campus life here,” Hanson said. “And whether or not it is cheap and easily accessible is big factor for college students.”