Anybody who doesn’t get excited about pizza has, well, never had a good one. That’s my philosophy, and it’s one of the many reasons my husband, Les, and I are so darn compatible. Our tenacity in searching out the best foods is another. It is not possible for me to pass on reading an article about food—whether it relates to a trend, a signature dish or a hot new restaurant. Les is the same. So when we found ourselves at Modern Apizza in New Haven, Connecticut, near the end of our summer vacation, it was pretty much heaven for both of us.
Our visit was not by chance; it was intended to be a highlight from the very start of our vacation planning, and we worked other aspects of our trip around it. That’s how seriously we take our pizza. And we had a big inside connection that won me a behind-the-scenes tour of the place, through the kitchen and prep spaces, and all the way down to the basement where they make more sauce and dough than I have ever imagined.
How did I have such an opportunity, you might wonder, to be invited into the heart of this business that is 650 miles from my home? Easy. Les knows the owners! During what seems like a lifetime ago, when he lived in the New Haven area, Les owned a home two doors down from Bill and Mary Pustari, who bought Modern Apizza in 1988 and continued the long tradition of excellence there that had begun in 1934. After a few years owning the place, they expanded the dining room and added a second, oil-fired brick oven to their kitchen to keep pace with the popularity of their amazing pizzas.
When Les reached out to his old friends to inform them of our plans to visit New Haven, they were gracious to offer me a tour of the restaurant, to witness the magic up close and personal. For me, it was as exciting as many of the backstage events I had experienced during my radio years and one of the biggest highlights of our entire trip, and I’m excited to share my experience, and the pizza it inspired me to make at home. But first—lunch!
Our server, Arianna (who also happens to be a daughter of the owners), didn’t hesitate when we asked which pizza is most popular with their customers.
“Hands down, the Italian Bomb,” she said. Well, sure, the one with sausage, bacon, pepperoni, mushroom, onions, peppers and fresh garlic, of course! That sounded like a lot to chew on for lunch, and we decided on a half-and-half pizza (kind of amazing they are willing to do that), with artichoke hearts and eggplant on one side, and Italian sausage with hot cherry peppers on the other. Both combinations were delicious, but what I could not get over was the complex flavor and chewy-but-crisp texture of the crust, and I was about to come face-to-face with the signature ingredient that gives Modern Apizza a culinary edge over its competitors.
When it was time for my “backstage” tour, Bill took me first through the kitchen, and then to the original oven, which they still fire up when business is booming. An oil-fired oven is an incredible sight, and when Bill informed me that the coolest spot in the oven is 700° F, I couldn’t resist asking what the hottest temperature in the oven was. Care to guess?
“The temperature of fire,” Bill answered. Wow!
From there, Bill led me downstairs to the basement of the restaurant and to a very special, very old refrigerator that is home to a very old resident—and the secret to their flavorful dough—a sourdough starter!
They call this glorious culture “The Bitch.”
Despite her unbecoming name, The Bitch is a beloved member of the family at Modern Apizza. They feed her every day, and if there is ever a weather emergency or power outage, she goes home with someone for safekeeping. Bill told me that several years ago, he wanted to take Modern’s pizzas to a new level, so he got a bit of a 100-year-old starter from a local French bakery, and that ushered in a whole new chapter in Modern’s history. This revelation thrilled my sourdough-loving heart to pieces and connected the dots on why our lunch pizza reminded me of home.
I got more confirmation about my pizza-at-home techniques when we went back upstairs to the kitchen, where William (also a Pustari) and George worked in harmony with Jesse, the oven guy, preparing pizzas to order for their customers, at an astonishing rate of two pizzas per minute. Honestly, I wanted to throw on an apron and jump in on the action!
From the shaping of the dough, the order of topping ingredients, the high-heat baking and the natural leavening of the pizza dough itself, I left Modern Apizza feeling that I was doing something right—or, really, doing a lot of things right, at home. All my research, trial and error had put me on the right pizza path, and that is a very good feeling. Before I share my home pizza that was inspired by this visit, can you stand just a little more bragging on Modern Apizza?
Despite the extra time it takes his prep crew, Bill is committed to doing right by his community. All those cans for the tomato sauce get recycled. He purchases sausage from a local butcher, serves local Foxon Park soft drinks, and Modern’s mozzarella comes from Liuzzi’s, the same Italian market Les and I had visited earlier in the week. Just before he arrived at the restaurant, Bill had met with a farmer to purchase local tomatoes to be used on the fresh tomato pizza which is, of course, a New Haven classic. All these neighbors supporting each other and finding great success—kinda makes me want to live in New Haven!
1 ball sourdough pizza dough* (see notes)
2 hot Italian sausage links, casings removed
1/2 medium onion, chopped
About 1/2 cup pickled hot cherry peppers
1/3 cup pizza sauce
1 cup freshly shredded mozzarella*
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
A handful of parm-romano blend cheese
Extra virgin olive oil
Sourdough was the key to the great flavor we experienced at Modern Apizza, and it’s my go-to pizza dough at home. My favorite recipe is linked in the ingredients list, and I recommend using a pizza steel and the hottest temperature your home oven can handle. My dough ferments in the refrigerator, but I bring it to almost-room temperature when I’m ready to shape and bake it.
Use firm, whole milk mozzarella for best results—and yes, you absolutely should shred it yourself rather than using pre-shredded, pre-bagged cheese. Pre-bagged cheese may be convenient but it is coated with a powdery substance that prevents clumping in the bag, which unfortunately for use on pizzas also prevents even melting. So please shred your own; it’s worth it.
- Preheat the oven to 550°F, with the oven rack positioned about 8 inches below the top element and a pizza steel in place for a solid hour at temperature.
- Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Crumble up the Italian sausage and brown it until some of the edges are just developing a crust. You want it to hang onto its moisture for the most part, as it will cook again in the oven. Add the onions to the skillet and cook until they are softened. Transfer the meat and onions to a bowl and cool completely.
- Drain the cherry peppers and pat them dry on layers of paper towel. Chop them into bite-sized pieces.
- When the oven is ready, shape the dough into a 14” round and transfer to a flour- and cornmeal-dusted pizza peel, which will make it easy to slide the pizza into the hot oven.
- Swirl pizza sauce over the dough, then scatter parm-romano and mozzarella evenly. Arrange the cooked sausage and onions over the pizza, and follow that with the cherry peppers.
- Drizzle olive oil lightly over the toppings and quickly transfer the pizza to the hot oven for about 6 minutes, or until the cheese is hot and bubbly and the edges of the crust are browned and blistered.