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B efore it was a tradition, it was just a habit.

In 2002, Eric Wenzel, then a junior at Yale, started going to Alpha Delta Pizza and ordering a chicken sub customized with hot sauce. At one point, he was eating two or three of them per day. He began bringing friends with him to try the sandwich—“sometimes 10 or 20,” recalls Cengiz Kilic, Alpha Delta’s owner. It became so popular, a recipe was drawn up and “Wenzel’s Sub” was added to the menu.

But Wenzel’s frequent visits came to an abrupt and tragic pause in January 2003, after a car accident killed four of his classmates and plunged Wenzel into a weeks-long coma.

By March, Wenzel was in rehab, and his sandwich, propelled by its namesake’s dramatic recovery and its own comfort-food merits, was en route to becoming a campus icon. The Wenzel’s been featured in Yale Symphony Orchestra’s Halloween Show and multiple Class Day videos. The promise of Wenzels is often used as bait to lure students into info sessions. Making the trek from Old Campus to Alpha Delta in the early days and weeks of freshman year has become a rite of passage.

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As students go abroad to study, work or return to their home countries, Wenzel junkies have a hard time quitting. Some go so far as to order Wenzels online from overseas, and Alpha Delta obliges, packing fresh Wenzels in ice and overnight-shipping them. “Germany, Turkey, Denmark, Britain, parts of South America,” Kilic lists, recalling destinations for such trips. Last month they sent seven Wenzels abroad, each one costing a mere $45.00. At the counter, you can snag it for $8.99.

Jibing with its Greek and Italian influences, Alpha Delta Pizza seems to operate in a different time zone. Skipping lunch and almost reaching breakfast, it opens each day at 3 p.m. and closes at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. depending on the night of the week. In the latest of its early morning hours, in the area just west of Yale’s core, Alpha Delta and nearby Mamoun’s enjoy a duopoly, exclusive sources of fuel for late-night work or play. Sounding like a recipe for rowdiness, Kilic says it never gets too crazy. “Even if they’re drunk, our customers are good customers,” he says. “No trouble.”

In Yalie circles, Alpha Delta has become synonymous with the Wenzel, but there’s much more ground to tread—21 grinders, 14 salads, 26 pizzas, various calzones and gyros, plus 13 pasta variations and 10 “fried dinners.” Among them are variations on the original Wenzel, like the Wenzel Pizza and the Eggplant Wenzel. In the back corner of the restaurant’s seating area, pizza boxes stack up to the ceiling. By Kilic’s estimate, the place goes through about 100 boxes a day.

On the other side of the space, exquisitely spiced lamb meat spins behind the front counter, juices bubbling and running down the sides before it’s shaved away for gyros. Although the Gyro Deluxe ($11.99) is simpler than its name suggests—basically pita and a scattering of onions over the lamb—the curved shreds of meat are good enough to carry the dish on their own. The French Fries are also quite tasty. Carrying a dash of seasoning, the innards of these thick, crispy-skinned golden bars have a soft yet substantive texture approaching that of mashed potatoes.

Given Alpha Delta’s hyper-casual climate, what Kilic told me about the ingredients it uses is surprising. “We use the best ingredients on the market. Organic, no chemicals.” In summer, he says, the restaurant uses lettuce from his own garden. “The people that work here are the oldest things in here—everything else is fresh.” Some staff have been working there for 15 or 20 years, Kilic says. He and some of the long-timers even grew up together in Giresun, Turkey.

By 1989, at the age of 23, Kilic had come to America and begun working at Alpha Delta, still owned by its Greek founders at the time. Now 49, Kilic says, “I grew up here.” And it doesn’t seem he’s about to outgrow it. “I hope to care for it the rest of my life.”

Not surprisingly, Kilic is especially proud of that Wenzel. “Have you tried one?” I barely had time to say “yes” before Kilic was putting in an order for me. As remembered from my college days, it came with melted full moons of provolone cheese, a light shredding of lettuce and cross-sections of tomato in toasted Italian-style bread, built around slices of crispy chicken grilled on a skillet, tossed with a secret mix of spices and hot sauce that saturates everything and runs down your fingers as you eat.

But even knowing most of what goes into a Wenzel doesn’t quite corner it. There’s something more. Nostalgia for bright-eyed college years? The dramatic story of tragedy and survival that lies behind its name? The mystery of its culinary DNA? Whatever it is, the Wenzel exceeds the sum of its parts.

Alpha Delta Pizza
371 Elm St, New Haven (map)
Sun-Wed 3pm-3am, Fri-Sat 3pm-4am
(203) 787-3333

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photo 1 by Dan Mims. Photos 2 and 3 by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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