T here aren’t many restaurants in New Haven that can look back on more than 75 years of doing business, but Sally’s Apizza, located at 237 Wooster Street in the heart of the city’s “Little Italy,” is one of them.
When Sally’s opened in the spring of 1938, families in this city were reeling from the Great Depression. But the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 still managed to produce a booming restaurant and tavern industry, allowing places like Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana and Tony’s Apizza Place (later called Modern Apizza) to flourish and expand. Frank Pepe’s nephews Sal and Tony Consiglio were kept busy at Pepe’s place; Sal made the pies while the younger Tony helped out. Seeing the success that Pepe and others were making with apizza (the Campanian dialectal word that translates to “the pizza”), Sal and Tony’s mom, Filomena Consiglio, learned that a pizzeria and bakery down the street from Pepe’s was for sale. She purchased the business for $500.
The restaurant was first named Sally’s Pizzeria Napoletana, and later Sally’s Apizza. Sal was the frontman making the pies while Tony became a waiter and Filomena managed, also giving Sal her family apizza recipe. Although he worked up to 14 hours a day, Sal still managed to meet the love of his life Flora Cozzi, known as Flo, and they were married in 1945. Flo spent the next two decades raising their kids Ruth, Bobby and Ricky, then joined Sal at the restaurant in the 1960s. Over the years, Sal was known for reaching out to many of the neighborhood youth, hiring them to work in the kitchen or on the waitstaff. Sal appreciated children, and that was part of Sally’s secret recipe, retaining a loyal following based both on the quality of the apizza and the welcoming family environment.
When Sally’s opened there were 15 pizzerias in New Haven and just as many more bakeries serving apizza. Sal’s brother Tony helped the restaurant stand out by bringing it national attention via his close friendship with Frank Sinatra, forged in high school when they played hooky together in Hoboken, NJ. When Sinatra performed in New Haven in 1940 with the Tommy Dorsey Band, Tony asked Sal to keep the oven going late, feeding all 22 members of the band, all expenses paid. Sinatra never forgot that. From that point on, Tony had Sally’s apizza delivered to Sinatra whenever he had a show in New York.
Tony used his connections with many other big-name stars to help bolster the restaurant. He would invite them to have apizza with him at Sally’s, take a photo with them, then send it to the New Haven Register. Some of the people Tony brought in include Buddy Rich, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Johnny Mathis and Louis Prima. When John F. Kennedy was running for president, Frank Sinatra and Tony Consiglio campaigned for him. Along the way, Kennedy visited the pizzeria in 1959 and his nephew, Branford resident Ted Kennedy, Jr., is a regular customer today, so we hear. Doonesbury artist Garry Trudeau has also been known to frequent Sally’s.
Countless Yale University students have, too. The Yale Daily News wrote in 1955, “It may never replace night baseball or sex as the Yale man’s chief after-dark activity, but the tradition of apizza and beer has hit the campus with a vengeance.” Two of those students were Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who found their love for apizza at Sally’s. Much later, when Bill was first running for president, he made Sally’s a stop and indulged on one of his favorite college munchies.
Sally’s success has led it to become a place of lore, and—since the 1970s—of lines. Due to limited seating, made-to-order pies and a shovel-stoked coal-fired oven, on any given night there can be an hourlong wait to sit (or more). It was also in the ’70s that customers began to claim that one of the two famed Wooster Square pizzerias is far superior to the other. Graduates of Yale, former residents and townies alike may ask you a peculiar question upon learning that you’re from New Haven: “Sally’s or Pepe’s?” Food critics from around the nation have chimed in, giving top rankings to both places. An upcoming documentary called Pizza, A Love Story aims to tell the rest of the world that it hasn’t eaten real pizza until it’s tried Sally’s, Pepe’s or Modern.
Even with hordes of people vying for seats and myriad headlines touting the quality of the pies, the restaurant is still family-run in a single location. But on a long-enough timeline, change is inevitable. News has leaked that Sally’s is for sale, sparking reactions of sadness, surprise, doubt, hunger and perhaps mild depression. Diehard fans are having a hard time accepting the idea of their thin-crust pizza Mecca changing or disappearing. Even lovers of deep-dish find themselves looking into a deep abyss.
Amid the uncertainty about what this means for the future of Sally’s, there’s still time to get the Sally’s experience. As the simple menu shows, the restaurant only serves apizza. A classic plain is presented simply, with grated cheese and tomato sauce. Payment options are simple, too: cash only. Take time to appreciate the place’s vintage trappings, like the aging drop ceiling and the wood-panel walls. No doubt Sal and Flo’s sons Bobby and Ricky—the current owners who, offering a jolt of optimism, say they aren’t going anywhere, even after a sale—will appreciate your appreciation.
237 Wooster St, New Haven (map)
Wed-Fri 5-10pm, Sat 5-11pm, Sun 5-10pm
Written by Colin Caplan. Photo #1 by Colin Caplan; photo #2 by Dan Mims.