Hot Italian Sausage & Cherry Pepper Pizza

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.

You have to say it like the locals do… it’s Modern “Ah-Beetz!”

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!

Oh, YUM!

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?

Modern Apizza’s original brick oven, still in action after all these years.

“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!

They have this down to a science!

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!


Ingredients

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


*Notes

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.


Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Drain the cherry peppers and pat them dry on layers of paper towel. Chop them into bite-sized pieces.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

We love having a taste of New Haven at home!


New Haven-style Fresh Tomato Pizza

Right here in the middle of gray, dull, Dry January, I think we could all enjoy a warm-weather trip down memory lane, and a taste of sweet summer tomatoes like the ones on this pizza. I’ve been waiting many months to share this story with you, and because this month is such a drag, I’m actually thankful that it took me so long to get to it. Life has been busy since we wrapped up our kitchen remodel, but now that the holidays are behind us, I’ve been looking at these pictures again and remembering the sweet time my husband, Les, and I had on our vacation through New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Our road trip presented a unique opportunity for me to do one of my favorite things—research of famous local foods—and this time, I was studying different but not necessarily opposed pizza styles. And after my extensive research (which was essentially just eating a lot of pizza), I have a confession. More of an announcement, really. For all the times I have claimed victory in the challenge to make homemade pizza that rivals my husband’s memory of his beloved N.Y.-style pizza, I stand corrected. My pizza at home does not at all rival the pizza of New York. It rivals a completely different style of pizza.

New York pizza is, of course, known for its gigantic slices and an ultra-thin and crispy crust that is easy to fold for eating on the run as you dash off to catch the subway or, if you’re lucky, a Broadway show. We had a taste of this N.Y. pie on our day trip into the city last August, as we stopped at one of the more acclaimed pizzerias, Bleecker Street Pizza. A friend of ours who is a native New Yorker (like my hubby) swears it is the best, so we put it on our “must do” list.

Legendary pizza slices, served up daily!

Notice their media props outside? Those are well-deserved, and the pies looked great, with the seasoned tomato sauce swirled out onto the dough (as I’m still learning to do at home, with hubby’s coaching) and, of course, all that cheese. It was good, but the crust didn’t feel or taste like the one I have developed at home—the crust that Les says is “just right.”

I can’t say for sure, but I suspect the Bleecker Street dough was dusted with rice flour. This is a simple trick that puts a crackling-crisp texture on the bottom crust and it’s good for reheating the slices, as they do to order, but it does not add flavor. Our research into pizza excellence would continue the next day, because we had plans to visit another legendary pizza town—New Haven, Connecticut. And that’s where I had my epiphany.

Greetings from New Haven, home of a whole different kind of pizza.

Les spent 19 years in the New Haven area, and I have heard plenty from him about various food joints he loved there, and especially about the white clam pizza, which we have worked to perfect over the past few years and now serve at home every New Year’s Eve. A random internet search for this unusual seafood pizza will lead you directly to New Haven, and particularly to Frank Pepe Pizzeria, which has been making white clam pizza since 1925. My mouth was watering from the time we arrived just before noon, and for the entire 30-minute wait, as there was a line of hungry pizza lovers wrapped all the way around the restaurant. We had waited so long for me to have a taste of real Frank Pepe’s pizza, we ordered three of them!

The crust on the first pizza—roasted red pepper with pepperoni—seemed instantly familiar, with more of the character I had been making at home, and Les agreed it was superior to the pie we had enjoyed the day before on Bleecker St. And there was something different about the flavor of the dough as well, something more complex, and we supposed it had to do with the higher heat ovens than what is used in the N.Y. pizzerias.

Frank Pepe’s uses an enormous coal-fired oven with a brick floor, and the pizzaolo has a pizza peel with a handle that is about 7 feet long—giving him access to load and spin the pizzas in the oven, but at a safe distance from the intense heat.

The coal-fired oven at Frank Pepe’s must be enormous inside, because they are churning out pizzas every few seconds.

My interest was piqued when the other two pizzas arrived at our table. First, there was a fresh tomato pizza, which is a limited-season thing and quite a big deal in New Haven, and it was very fresh and bright, exactly like summer. Finally, the legendary white clam pizza, and I was certain it would be pure nirvana for my taste buds.

Sometimes your imagination (or even your memory) of something can outrank the real thing and maybe that’s what happened, but it wasn’t until I finally dared to lean across the table and whisper the words, “I think ours at home is better,” and Les instantly agreed, that the reason occurred to me. As quickly as they were churning out specialty pizzas at Frank Pepe Pizzeria, there is no way they can manage using freshly shucked clams, as we do at home every New Year’s Eve. Nope, these clams had to be from a can. Still, the crust was very good and more like the one that Les has encouraged me to emulate. What I didn’t like was the dusty black char that was prevalent across the bottom of the pizzas, and even a bit on top of my white clam slice—it was the stuff we avoid at home by scraping off the hot steel before sliding another pizza into the oven. But I get it, they are slammed busy with a line out the door even as we left. Overall, it was still a great experience, and we boxed up our leftover slices to continue our journey through New Haven.

We had one more pizza joint to experience and it turned out to be the best of the bunch, not only for the pizza but for the overall experience. So much so, in fact, that it deserves its own post—tomorrow!

Until then, please enjoy this recipe—my own—for fresh tomato pizza, which I created at home the first weekend after we returned from our trip!

We don’t have a huge, coal-fired oven, but we are still getting it done at home!

My version used farmers’ market, late-season heirloom tomatoes and some fresh basil I plucked from a plant that was growing on my kitchen counter. It was post-Labor Day, but we were technically still in the final days of summer, and this pizza captured all the beautiful freshness of that.

The base, of course, is what I have long called My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough, but obviously I will have to update that because my careful, ahem, “research” proved my dough more closely resembles what the locals in New Haven call “apizza.”


Ingredients

2 heirloom tomatoes, cut in 1/4’’ slices

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 ball of pizza dough at close to room temperature

1/3 cup simple tomato sauce

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend cheese

About 3/4 cup freshly shredded whole milk mozzarella

A handful of fresh basil leaves

Extra virgin olive oil


*Notes

As always, the oven should be as hot as a home oven goes—550°F.  and heated for an hour with a heavy pizza steel for the best-ever, crispy texture. If you do not have a steel, use a pizza stone and preheat to the hottest temperature possible for your particular stone. This combination of steel or stone and very high heat will emulate the brick oven baking that makes this style of pizza so special.


Instructions

Spread the tomato slices out onto a large plate and sprinkle kosher salt over them. Be generous with the salt, as it will draw out excess moisture, concentrating the flavor of the tomatoes. Let this rest 20 minutes while you enjoy a cocktail (or whatever you do before dinner). Transfer the tomatoes to layered paper towels and pat dry.I actually poured the salted tomato juice from the plate right into my martini for a savory twist. When Dry January is over, I may do that again! 😉

Shape the dough into a 14” round and place it on a flour and cornmeal-dusted peel. Swirl on sauce, then sprinkle parm-romano evenly, not minding if some of it lands on the dough edges. Scatter the mozzarella on top, give it a few quick twists of freshly cracked black pepper, and arrange the drained tomato slices and basil leaves. Lightly drizzle the top of the pizza with olive oil and dash it off into the screaming-hot oven for about six minutes.