When I was growing up in southwestern Connecticut, I never had trouble finding a great slice of pizza. But I never knew I was living in arguably the best pizza region in the country. Food writer Ed Levine has even christened the region with a name: The Pizza Belt. A strip of the Northeast running from Philadelphia to Boston, roughly along what is now highway I-95, forms the belt that received many Neapolitan immigrants about a century ago.
Pizza aficionados have further labeled pizza from Connecticut’s strip of the Belt “New Haven-style” pizza. With its bubbly, browned cheese and thin, charred crust, this is the pizza that raised me, even though back then I knew nothing of the various gastronomic labels lavished onto the area by outsiders. I only knew the pizza as, well, pizza.
I only began to realize how good I had it when I moved to New York City twenty years ago, and quickly noticed, to my horror, how difficult it was to find a decent pie. Sure, NYC remains one of The Pizza Belt’s anchor cities, boasting the likes of legendary Di Fara’s in Brooklyn and Rizzo’s in Astoria, but hundreds of knockoff pizzerias have flooded the city, diluting the Belt with their infamously undercooked, overcheesed, thick-crusted slabs sitting out at room temperature all day to insure you get a raging dose of bacteria. Even pizzas fresh out of most NYC pizza ovens are still half raw.
Meanwhile, a neighborhood pizzeria established in 1935 in Derby, Connecticut – a tiny factory town that used to manufacture everything from pianos to corsets – has been scoring national write-ups for its pies with “crunchy-and-chewy crust” and “luxuriant flavor.” The restaurant, Roseland Apizza, is a place where I used to stop after band practice, a place on a back road that no one takes unless they are locals, yet it received the attention one might expect for a well-connected East Village gastropub. I found it all oddly humorous.
This past weekend, I returned to Roseland to establish if the pizzeria still makes pies as I remember them. I also wondered what I impressions I might gather after having known what the pizza tasted like over two decades ago, as opposed to being one of the foodies trying Roseland for the first time. I convinced my wife and my mom to join me on this gastronomic obsession of mine so we could fill the booth table with a variety of menu items. The first pie out was the garlic pie:
Cheese browned like sunspots; slightly charred thin crust. Olive oil-based grease I didn’t want to sop up with a napkin, unlike the slimy slicks atop most New York slices. A slight but steady background hum of garlic. Then the flavors began to team up, resonating with my memories as if a dormant lever had been pulled. This pizza was not only the pizza I remember, this was the taste of Men at Work and Led Zeppelin warbling out from worn cassettes, the taste of Reagan and his minions ramping up Cold War rhetoric. I almost tried to roll up the sleeves of my long-lost Members Only jacket.
In my teens, my budget only allowed me a chance at Roseland’s seafood offerings once or twice, and at a present cost of $42 for a shrimp pie, I attempted to hide my hesitation from the matronly waitress. The pie’s arrival quickly put the cost into proper perspective:
There must have been at least $25 worth of fresh, juicy shrimp on this white pie, joined by oregano, mozzarella, and fresh tomatoes. The tails of the shrimp had browned nicely as they left the protection of the crust and curled upwards while they cooked, the rest of the shrimps’ bodies remaining nestled in a coating of cheese. The crispy crust played nicely off the soft, plump pop of shrimp in each bite. Extra bonus points scored for the doilies under the pie. Nothing exudes the apparent contradiction of sophisticated simplicity better than a paper doily. Except maybe a shrimp pizza.
We finished the survey with an eggplant parmesan grinder. (As with the States’ regional preferences of soda versus pop, you might more easily recognize the grinder by its other names: hero, hoagie, or sub.) Like the shrimp pizza, the price of the grinder seemed a bit high ($12) until it arrived. Layered with countless, monstrous folds of delicately fried eggplant cut the long way, the grinder bun could not be closed. It could not be eaten in any sane way without a fork and knife. Only a factory worker after a double shift could possibly finish it, and I wonder how many had.
We left with a stack of leftovers. I spent the rest of the day being entertained by images of mullet-topped classmates and handheld Coleco games climbing up through a trap door, over my youth, that Roseland had accidentally opened.
Food critics may refer to southwestern Connecticut as one of the best pizza regions in the country, and they are probably right, but to me, it will always be my old stomping grounds.