Open Door

I t takes confidence to open a new pizza place just a few blocks from local heavyweights Modern Apizza and Da Legna. But Robin Bodak, Doug Coffin and Domenic Giannotti have done it anyway with Next Door Pizza and Bar. This ownership trio is actually a trifecta, bringing a wealth of relevant experience to an eatery that’s both casual and trendy, with pizzas and plates to share, draft beers and “craft cocktails,” familiar flavors and new creations.

13 years ago, when Coffin expanded his catering business into a fleet of mobile wood-fired pizzerias emblazoned with the name Big Green Truck Pizza, it hardly crossed his mind to worry about the competition. “I wasn’t really that intimidated by it,” he says, “in part because I was… doing something that no one else was doing.” The next step of opening a brick-and-mortar place—a business that, as the menu says, “(hopefully) won’t need a tow truck!”—was natural, and Coffin seems as unconcerned as ever about the competition. “You cannot, perhaps, possibly saturate the market for pizza in New Haven,” he says. “Good pizza generates more interest in pizza.”

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The moniker Next Door came to its owners almost by default, Coffin says. The building at the corner of Humphrey and East, perhaps best remembered—at least for now—as Humphrey’s restaurant, is literally next door to the garage where his five pizza trucks are parked. “Every time we’d been talking about it, we always would say, ‘Well, if we open up next door, then this is what we’re going to do,’” Coffin recounts. “So we said, ‘Well, maybe we should just call it Next Door.’” The name also serves a figurative function, evoking the feeling of neighborhood, of old friends coming to visit, of the idea that—as the stylized signs painted on the exposed brick walls suggest—you should “Share Your Food” and “Eat With Your Hands.”

Next Door is itself the creation of old friends. Bodak was with Coffin’s catering business even before the establishment of Big Green Truck Pizza, going on to run the kitchen at Judie’s European Bakery and open Coco Tamale Catering, her own catering business. Giannotti, meanwhile, “grew up in the pizza business” and started with Coffin as a pizza truck driver. He later opened Dive Bar (a play on his passion for scuba diving) in West Haven and now also runs Next Door’s bar and events.

I first stopped in at Next Door on a Friday evening. The place was hopping, and a band was playing in the rear dining room, where the brick oven was blasting and the pizza chefs were hard at work. My daughter and I shared the MSG pizza ($22)—a red pie topped with mozzarella, summer squash, shiitake mushrooms and goat cheese—with that classic thin-and-crispy Big Green Truck Pizza crust, and Cheesy Pepper Fries ($12) with roasted Padrón peppers and onions, drenched in crema and queso. Then the table next to us, where one of my daughter’s former classmates and his family had ordered too much, took the advice to “share your food” and gave us a gift: half of an amazing ice cream sandwich, its soft chocolate cookies with a hint of ginger yielding to rich, salty caramel ice cream.

On my second visit, to meet Coffin, Bodak and general manager and marketer Maria Corina, I sampled a few more Next Door delicacies. The White Clam pizza ($25) with garlic, pecorino Romano, olive oil and fresh thyme was a classic winner, with tender pieces of fresh clam from a local fish market. Coffin says the secret of his pizza crust isn’t so much in the ingredients as in the way the dough is handled. “You have to give it time,” he says. “You have to keep it cold and let it age… A lot of people try and get something tasty by putting either oil or some sugar in the dough … and I think that that just kind of gets in the way.”

A Roasted Carrot Small Plate ($9) was presented next, dressed with miniature dollops of creamy strained goat’s milk yogurt, crispy quinoa and millet, sage, oregano, lemon basil, salt, pepper, tahini and colorful pansies. Bodak says it’s one of the most popular items on the menu. Served in a unique, elongated tray, it was beautiful enough to have come from an exclusive five-star kitchen. The carrots were perfectly cooked—firm without being crunchy—and bathed in a creamy, flavorful blend of tartness and sweetness.

Finally, I shared a so-called small plate big enough for a meal: the melt-in-your-mouth beef Short Rib Small Plate ($14) cooked in red wine, tomato and garlic and served with a semolina-based faux cornbread sporting a sweet, honeyed crust and a hint of salt. The plate was completed by a pretty pile of crunchy coleslaw with a pleasing vinegar tang.

Like the Ice Cream Sammie ($8) from the week before (which I haven’t stopped thinking about), each item I tried was ripe for sharing. “We want people to look at the menu as snacks and not as a typical appetizer-then-a-salad-then-a-meal,” Corina says. “It’s really more tapas-style. It’s really made to share.”

By the time we were done talking, the dining room had nearly filled and Coffin couldn’t walk more than 10 steps without being greeted by one old friend or another. But you don’t have to know anyone in New Haven to appreciate Next Door. There’s a friendly current running through the place, where an offbeat pattern of black and white hexagons spills across the floor as if inviting guests to follow it.

First, they just have to walk through Next Door’s door.

Next Door Pizza and Bar
175 Humphrey St, New Haven (map)
Mon, Wed-Sun 4:30pm-close
(475) 234-5969 | info@nextdoornewhaven.com
www.nextdoornewhaven.com

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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