Gorman Bechard at Modern Apizza

Life of Slice

For anyone from outside the city, New Haven’s “pizza wars”—between fans of Pepe’s, Sally’s and Modern—may seem funny, even incomprehensible, but New Haveners are downright serious about their pizza. Enter local filmmaker Gorman Bechard, a self-described “pizza snob,” to explain why. His feature-length documentary Pizza: A Love Story will make its local debut Saturday at the New Haven Documentary Film Festival.

The movie chronicles the origin of pizza in southern Italy, how it landed in New Haven and why it stuck. Bechard tells the stories of New Haven’s three iconic pizzerias and interviews celebrities Lyle Lovett, Michael Bolton and Henry Winkler; politicians John DeStefano, Toni Harp and Chris Murphy; local historians, pizza aficionados and, of course, the pizza makers themselves.

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“Warning… you will really want pizza by the time this is done,” Bechard writes in an email when sharing a preview link to the film. It’s true. Shot after shot of gorgeous New Haven pies being carried from the oven on wooden paddles, slid onto papered trays or boxes and expertly sliced, their crispy edges charred (“not burnt”), cheese oozing, sauce steaming, is almost enough to make anyone a New Haven pizza lover before taking a single bite.

Bechard recently stopped eating cheese, but pizza purists will tell you that’s no problem. In New Haven, an order of “plain” pizza will bring you a pie with tomato sauce and no mozzarella but maybe a “slight sprinkling” of grated Romano. The late Salvatore Consiglio—the “Sally” of Sally’s Apizza—preferred a plain pizza with garlic, Bechard says. His own current go-to is a plain pie with garlic, basil and “like five little rings of cherry peppers.”

Pizza: A Love Story was Bechard’s first documentary when he began working on it, though he’s released several in the meantime, including the critically acclaimed Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements, three other “rock docs” and the animal rights feature A Dog Named Gucci. Though he’d done several shorter narrative films before starting Pizza, Bechard learned that the documentary style suits him. “I think of making a documentary as closer to writing a book,” he says, “’cause you sort of put it together in a dark room. you’re all done. You’re not relying on actors.” And there’s the element of surprise. You “really never know what you’re going to get,” he says. “When you’re interviewing someone, you don’t know what they’re going to say.”

Bechard grew up in Waterbury, then moved to State Street in New Haven in his 20s and began hanging out at Modern. “I am of the belief that there are three pizza places on the planet,” he says, sounding like a true partisan. He’ll make a few exceptions for some “second-tier” places: Roberta’s in Brooklyn, Harvest in Columbus, Indaco in Charleston, Piece in Chicago. Don’t even talk to him about the pizza in Minneapolis or St. Louis.

So, what is it about New Haven pizza? The film offers up seven “lessons” for the uninitiated, including how to pronounce “apizza” and “mozz,” the importance of the oven and what’s up with that char, which Bechard likens to “these wonderful black marks” on a grilled steak. A real New Haven pizza will blacken your fingers. “ my fingernails aren’t gross, I haven’t eaten pizza,” Bechard says.

Working on multiple projects at once is Bechard’s MO. He has four more films in the works. Often, he says, he’s literally rolling from one desk to another in his home office to confer with his editors working on various movies. “If you ask me what my passions are, it’s like rock and roll, pizza and dogs,” he says—the subjects that comprise most of his oeuvre.

Pizza: A Love Story took longer than Bechard’s other films to produce because he had trouble at first finding the right historic photographs. Pepe’s history was well-documented—he calls it “the single biggest tourist attraction in the entire state of Connecticut, without question”—but coming up with images of Sally’s and Modern and New Haven’s earliest Italian immigrants was more challenging. When local historian, photograph collector and pizza aficionado Colin Caplan finally joined the project as a co-producer, Bechard says, they were off and running. His longtime friend and co-producer Dean Falcone did the soundtrack.

Bechard is co-founder and co-director, with filmmaker and Yale professor Charles Musser, of the New Haven Documentary Film Festival, which is organized by Karyl Evans and managed by Katherine Germano. Also known as NHdocs, it’s grown from a one-day, four-film startup in 2014 to an 11-day extravaganza, this year offering free screenings of 110 films, from shorts to full-length features. The festival will culminate in a three-day homage to special guest Michael Moore, with discussions and screenings of seven of Moore’s “most provocative documentaries.”

Film screenings are all free and open to the public. A $50 Fast Pass guarantees reserved seating at all screenings and admission to the opening night party. The super VIP option, a $200 Fast Pass Deluxe, also includes admission to ticketed events at Cafe Nine, nine other filmmaker parties and events, a brunch honoring Moore and festival swag.

Regular seats for Pizza: A Love Story are already sold out, but Bechard promises more screenings to come. Or, through the end of today at least, you can get a Fast Pass or Fast Pass Deluxe and snag a seat now, as well as entrée to the May 30 opening night reception.

Pizza will be served.

Pizza: A Love Story and the 2019 New Haven Documentary Film Festival
May 30-June 9, 2019
Film Website | Festival Website | Festival Schedule | Fast Passes

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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