This week began Kate’s and my systematic quest to find the best pizza in Middletown, CT. Pizza is so simple and it can be so good or so crappy. In its most standard form, there are just three components: the sauce, the crust and the cheese. Of course there are virtually infinite variations (toppings, accommodations for people allergic to any number of ingredients), but this basic foundation of wheat, tomato and dairy is plenty flexible in and of itself. And, as my brother taught me when I first learned to cook, the simpler a dish is, the more important the quality of the ingredients becomes. To make a sublime pizza is not actually that difficult, but you need to spend some time with the dough and making the sauce, and you need to spend some money on ingredients. If you throw one together as quickly as possible with the cheapest ingredients available, the results will correspond.
My relationship with pizza has evolved over time. Growing up near New Haven, CT taught me that pizza can be really, really good – if you’ve been to Wooster Street (and/or know somebody who has and who talks about it in reverent tones) you know what I’m talking about. I have thus far had only one experience of bringing someone to one of those pizzerias without a great response, and I’m pretty sure she was grumpy for other reasons. But I also chowed down on plenty of mediocre pizza as a teenager, operating on the widely accepted principle that sauce + cheese + crust = pretty good even when it’s pretty bad, as long as it’s warm. I ultimately saw these as two different phenomena, one a wonderful gourmet item, the other a step up from fast food in providing relatively tasty and cheap calories. Think of it this way: Sally’s or Pepe’s Apizza are to Dominos what John Coltrane is to Kenny G – described using the same word and containing some elements in common but otherwise pretty different in presentation and quality.
When I got to New Jersey for college, I was not prepared for the shift. The mediocre pizza was abundant, and still served the function of cheap fast food that was healthier than a cheeseburger, but the absence of the good stuff was striking. I found few Italian-run pizzerias in all of New Brunswick (most were Lebanese, interestingly) and it required 15-20 minute trips to the suburbs to get something that at best was almost as good as the places I used to go to near my suburban CT home when it was too much effort to go into New Haven proper. The highest-quality options were highbrow restaurants offering gourmet items, or as I derisively called it, “yuppie pizza” (telltale signs of yuppie pizza include toppings such as artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese). My stance on yuppie pizza has softened – a yuppie pizza with quality ingredients certainly trumps a bad but more “legit” one – and when we make our own pizza it often bears a lot more resemblance to that than to the straightforward Neapolitan pie (think whole-wheat crust with kale, fresh tomatoes, feta cheese and walnuts). That said, I still have both culinary and philosophical allegiance to a place where the three fundamental elements are just so good that one is inclined to limit or avoid toppings simply because they would distract from the real joy of the pizza itself.
If growing up in New Haven was phase one and New Jersey was phase two, I am now more than a dozen years into phase three, life in Middletown, CT. As one might expect from a college town, there is lots of pizza (per capita, anyway). As one might not expect from a town that is disproportionately Italian, however, not much of it is very good. Part of me has been holding out for the little hole in the wall that has the REAL stuff that I just haven’t found yet (after all, getting pizza in New Haven is only fruitful if you know where to go), but sadly I don’t know if it’s rational.
Meanwhile, my diet has evolved, and both white flour and big piles of cheese have gone from being sustenance to indulgence – I eat pizza maybe every 6 weeks, and most often it’s homemade with whole-grain crust and minimal, high-quality cheese. In one sense this has made the search for the best pizza in my town less relevant – I mostly don’t eat it and can just go to New Haven a couple times a year. In another sense, though, it has amped up the quest even more – every once in a while I just want to indulge in a pizza, and as nutritionally disciplined a person as I may be, I love food and it is therefore a sad thing when I blow my “indulgence quota” (whether on pizza or dessert) and it isn’t even good!
So last week Kate suggested that we just systematically figure out, once and for all, where you can or can’t get good pizza in Middletown. As insane as that idea is (e.g. eating lots of potentially bad pizza, with a likely outcome of determining we should just drive to New Haven), I was hooked. I do, ultimately, have a sense of civic pride towards my town . . . and am pretty stoked about the idea of eating lunch with Kate several days a week for the couple months it’ll take us to do this. So we agreed on a plan that would allow us to evaluate this conundrum as objectively as possible, while not turning it into a sequel to “Super-Size Me” in terms of physical impact.
There are two premises going in that may be proven or debunked. One is that while it’s highly unlikely that we’ll find any “A” (much less A+) pizza, an A-minus or two is likely, and we may even be pleasantly surprised. Two, more cynically, because most consumers don’t have high expectations, most pizza places are going to provide something at a “B” or lower level because it’s simply more time-efficient and cost-effective to do so. And three, most of these places’ pizza will be virtually indistinguishable because they’re using virtually (and in many cases literally, if they have the same distributors) the same ingredients.
Let me point out at this point that for all my food snobbery I DO admire the hard work and dedication of the small business owners and their employees who work really hard and do their best at a demanding job. It is possible that what I consider to be a mediocre and generic sauce is, in fact, homemade from a 100 year old family recipe. At the same time, though, the difference between high quality mozzarella and tomatoes and industrial-grade pre-shredded cheese and factory-canned sauce is noticeable, and if it’s not going to be above a certain level of freshness and flavor, it’s just not worth the gut-bomb. This, of course, makes it kind of ludicrous that I’ll be potentially eating a couple dozen pizzas in the near future, most of them below this threshold I’m describing, but sometimes you’ve gotta take one for the team (the team, in this case, being the enlightenment of Middletown-area pizza fans, plus the strangely irresistible philosophical draw of systematically addressing an otherwise vague question such as “where’s the best pizza in Middletown?”).
Our research brought us to a list of approximately 18-20 places we will need to sample. The number is approximate for a few reasons. One, in the internet age, there’s a lot of old information out there, so there are some places that simply may or may not be open for business by the time we get there. Also there are a number of places in Middletown that are not pizzerias per se but do offer pizza – we think we’ve identified them, while, but are open to information from others who realize we’ve neglected a place (Middletown area readers – scroll to the bottom for the list). As pointed out in the rules below, this does not count places that only offer interesting gourmet pizzas or pizza-esque things – I love garlic paste and exotic cheeses as much as the next guy, but for the purposes of this study, if you can’t do it with sauce, mozzarella and crust then you’re in a different category altogether.
1 ) We will cover every place where we can walk in to get a small (or small-ish) plain cheese pizza any day they’re open and sit down to eat it. This includes restaurants that aren’t necessarily pizzerias, but excludes places that only offer “gourmet” pizza with comparatively exotic toppings. It includes places with limited seating, but excludes delis and markets that only offer slices and/or special-ordered catering pizzas, as well as places that only offer pizza certain days of the week. If someone points out that we’re fools for neglecting a particular place for these reasons, we will reconsider.
2 ) To ensure an “even playing field,” we will order a small plain cheese pizza and eat it there, right out of the oven.
3 ) To ensure we don’t get sick or gain weight, on pizza days we will be correspondingly chaste with our consumption of dairy, salt and processed white stuff (white flour, sugar) as well as total food intake.
4 ) We will grade each pie in four categories: crust, cheese, sauce and “general impression” and compute a total grade from those.
5 ) We may observe other factors (cost/value, speed and quality of service, aesthetics of the restaurant, intriguing menu items or toppings) BUT they will not factor into the grade – we’re looking for the best pie, not the best place to eat it or the best “value.”
6 ) Ties in the rankings will be possible. If there is a tie for the top ranking, we will make return visits with additional criteria.
7 ) There need not be a consensus – Kate and I may grade a given pie differently, and our final rankings may not be the same.
8 ) We will thank the powers that be that there is no longer a Pizza Hut in Middletown, which would have challenged us in that their sauce isn’t vegetarian.
If you’re interested in the grading scale, here it is:
A+ = we frequently fantasize about our next opportunity to eat here
A = we look forward to our next opportunity to eat here
A- = the next time we find ourselves wanting pizza, we would likely choose to eat it here
B+ = this would be a perfectly decent pie if we found ourselves here for whatever reason
B = if we’re really craving pizza and/or really hungry and this is all that’s available, it’ll be fine and reasonably enjoyable
B- = if we’re hungry enough and this pizza is what’s available, it will get the job done
C+ = this is kind of gross, but maybe still satisfying (in the same sense that a pile of fast food french fries would be) for that first slice that coincides with the brief moment when it’s still piping hot
C = barely tolerable, but better than getting stomach cramps from hunger
C- = debatable whether it’s better than getting stomach cramps from hunger
D+ and lower = couldn’t even finish it, research methods be damned
The restaurants that we’ve more or less confirmed will be part of the study(do let us know if we’ve missed any):
Alpha Pizza House
First and Last