It’s August, and I miss New Haven food.
I began pining earlier this summer while I was studying in Siena. Though I spent six weeks surrounded by arguably the best cuisine in the world, I occasionally found myself searching the streets of Italy for a Thai restaurant or the Caseus Cheese Truck. Even when I returned home to Chicago, my longings persisted. My desperation reached its peak when I encountered a friend who will be attending Princeton this fall.
“Will you be able to visit me in New Haven for the Yale-Princeton game?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Eliana.”
“We could get mashed potato pizza…” I offered as incentive. My friend’s countenance shifted from confusion to disgust. Potatoes on pizza?
But mashed potato pizza — and New Haven-style pizza in all its forms — is what I missed most in my first summer away from Yale. I even searched online for pizza that would satiate this craving, and I eventually came across the website of Piece.
Piece had been the setting of my first real Yale experience — an alumni-sponsored viewing of The Game. At the time, I thought the Yale Club in Chicago had chosen the place for its massive plasma TVs, but I understood in retrospect that alumni with cravings similar to mine had carefully selected Piece for its New Haven-style pizza.
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Piece, in its very origin, is a little slice of New Haven. Bill Jacobs, its founder, grew up in New Haven eating pizza at Sally’s. Jacobs’ father (’52, LAW ’57) had eaten at Sally’s throughout his childhood and was close to the Consiglio family who founded the restaurant. Jacobs recalls that his father “always brought to our attention that New Haven has the best pizza in the world.”
From the Consiglio family, Jacobs learned that New Haven-style pizza — lovingly dubbed “apizza” by locals — was defined by certain special elements: “Every apizza is hand-formed, pulled out by hand. Not tossed. Sally Consiglio made a point of telling us that many years ago,” says Jacobs. “You walk [into Sally’s], you will never see people throwing up pizzas as you might in a pizza place in New York, making a show of it. The dough has to be handled very carefully.” A traditional New Haven-style pizza consists of a crispy crust (usually cooked in a coal white oven), oregano, tomato sauce, and a little grated pecorino romano cheese. All other toppings are optional.
It was this apizza from his childhood that Jacobs eventually replicated in Chicago. Jacobs saw a niche to fill: in Chicago, deep-dish pizza — which can be described as a 3-inch oiled-crust bowl filled with cheese, sauce, and toppings — has long dominated the pizza market. Jacobs recalls, “I was quite confident that if I brought New Haven-style, thin-crust pizza to Chicago, it would be well-received.”
And it has been. Since its founding in 2001, Piece has been named Best Thin Crust Pizza and Best Brewery by Chicago Metromix and has won 19 medals in the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival. The pairing of award-winning, home-brewed beers (such as “Full Frontal” and “Fornicator”) and award-winning, hand-made pizzas has lured a consistent crowd to Piece. You can expect a minimum of a two-hour wait on a weekend night. With such booming business, Piece is rarely closed for private parties, but every year on the day of The Game, the restaurant is reserved solely for Bulldogs.
As Harvard scored its first touchdown during the 2008 game, I pushed through a sea of “Old Blues,” as my father calls fellow alumni, and grabbed my first slice of mashed-potato pizza. I looked back to share my thoughts with my father on this strange, delicious combination of potato and crackling crust. But he was lost in the crowd with his own clam-topped slice, reminiscing about his graduation dinner and how his grandmother had anchovies placed on every Pepe’s pizza ordered for the crowd.
Apizza is a touchstone for all us separated Yalies. And, for this reason, we are Jacobs’ favorite customers. Jacobs smiles as he says, “The Yalies have definitely identified [Piece] as their place in Chicago.”
There is something about New Haven pizza that provides comfort to alumni. After all, memory and homesickness have always been associated with food. In Italy, I missed friends and family, but, most of all, I missed American food. My classmates in Siena often discussed what food we would seek out as soon as we touched down in the States. The Californians were headed to In-n-Out Burger; one student toyed with the notion of taking a detour from JFK to New Haven just for a Black Bear buffalo chicken wrap. As for Chicago Yalies, they order up apizza at Piece and dream of Wooster Square.