New Kids on the Block

New Kids on the Block

Wooster Street’s newest pizza has Albanian roots and Brooklyn chutzpah, but it comes straight from Naples, Italy, and the Zeneli brothers intend to keep it that way. This audacious foursome are the owners of Zeneli Pizzeria e Cucina Napoletana, which opened in the epicenter of New Haven pizzadom last summer.

“The people in the beginning called us crazy to make another pizza place in this street,” says youngest brother Gazmir, the master pizzaiolo and an International Pizza Challenge champion. But they were hoping to offer something different. “It’s like you spend a day in Napoli,” Gazmir says of the experience of eating at Zeneli.

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Like New Haven-style apizza, Zeneli’s is thin. But its crust is lighter and airier, and the toppings are strictly traditional. To accurately call their pizza Neapolitan-style, Gazmir says, they must follow rules that date back to the 19th century. The flour must be imported from Napoli, and the dough must be made the night before and left for a long period of fermentation at room temperature. The tomatoes must be San Marzano and the mozzarella di bufala must be imported from the homeland as well. The dough is wood-fired for just 90 seconds in a hot oven, creating an outer crust that’s “puffy, lightly well-done,” as Gazmir describes it, as opposed to the usual crispy New Haven crust with wide swathes of char.

The differences between New Haven-style apizza and Neapolitan-style pizza made the first few months of business challenging, says Aleko, the oldest brother. “It has to be eaten right away,” he says. “As soon as you go from the oven, every 10 feet.” Zeneli offers limited outdoor seating, but if you must do takeout, Aleko offers some advice: When you get home, before cutting it, put it in the oven on a pizza stone for a minute.

The Zenelis are Albanian by birth; Gazmir was just seven years old when the family fled the then-Communist nation for Italy. “It was not easy to go,” Aleko says. “We were going with the contrebandiers. I risked my life two times in the sea.” Eventually, the family obtained Italian citizenship, but as soon as they could, they began applying to the US immigration lottery. Gazmir and Aleko won passage to America and settled in Brooklyn for a decade, where they worked for the Italian food market Eataly; brother Jeshar followed and settled in New Haven as a cheesemaker for Hamden’s Liuzzi Cheese. A fourth brother, Jetmir, is still in Italy, with plans to join them.

It was in their first adopted home of Naples that the brothers learned traditional cheesemaking and pizza preparation. While pizza may not have been born in Naples, it was perfected there, Gazmir contends. He tells the story of Queen Margherita, for whom the famous tomato, basil and cheese pie is named. On a visit to Naples in 1889, he says, she asked to try the food of the people—pizza, which at that time was street food, baked in a flat circle and folded in fourths to be eaten by hand. A famous pizza-maker first tried serving her Pizza Marinara, which didn’t suit her taste.

“So the guy was very creative, and he was very proud that the queen cared about the poor people,” Gazmir says. “He added the bufala mozzarella that is made and was invented in Caserta near to Naples… Because he was proud, he put tomato sauce, he put the basil, and he put the cheese, so basically matches with the Italy flag.” Queen Margherita, incidentally, ate her pizza with a fork and knife, and now many Italians do the same. According to Gazmir, the pizza that bears her name is “the most-sold dish in the world.”

I had to try some. The Margherita Verace had that light, melt-in-your-mouth crust with the lively flavor of those San Marzano tomatoes and that mozzarella di bufala ($14). Part of its appeal is its simplicity. You can taste every distinct ingredient that tops the pie. As an alternative to this verace (“true”) version of the queen’s pizza, you can order a less expensive Margherita Pizza with more local ingredients for $10.

The menu includes 15 pizzas, all baked in a 12-inch personal size, ranging in price from $9 for a simple Marinara (tomato sauce, oregano, garlic, basil and extra-virgin olive oil) to $22 for a Tartufella topped with “black truffle and mushroom cream, sweet Italian sausage and fresh black summer truffle.” But it was the Calzone Napoletano that sealed the deal for me. Hidden inside a pocket made of that same light, airy dough was a creamy, balanced filling of ricotta, mozzarella, prosciutto cotto (“cooked”) and San Marzano tomato sauce. It was delicate, unlike every other calzone I’ve eaten, and delicious.

Zeneli’s antipasti ($6-$28) include prosciutto, several types of cheese, one salad and the Ricotta e Miele: two slices of bread topped with smooth, creamy ricotta and honey ($6), which is so rich that it might as well be dessert. The menu also includes four pasta dishes ($12-$17). I sampled the Spaghetti al Pomodoro ($12), a bowl of robust homemade pasta with tomato sauce and a garnish of fresh basil, another dish that was both simple and utterly satisfying. Also offered are wine, beer, sparkling water and soda as well as a single dessert: Nutella Pizza ($15), featuring dough stuffed with Nutella and topped with fresh strawberries and powdered sugar.

Before COVID-19, customers could sit at the counter bar and watch the pizza being made. After indoor dining reopens tomorrow, on June 17, you still won’t be able to sit at the bar, but you will be able to watch Gazmir or one of the other pizza makers prepare the dough and toppings and slide pizzas in and out of the impressive gold-tiled oven. It was built to resemble Mount Vesuvius and—you guessed it—imported from Italy.

It’s a tough time to run a new business, but the Zenelis are grateful that the neighborhood, still well-populated with immigrants from southern Italy and their descendants, has embraced them. “Thank God,” Aleko says with a laugh. “We didn’t come here to make a competition,” although the tag line on the restaurant’s website—“Finally, Good Pizza Has Arrived in New Haven”—certainly reads like a shot across the bow.

“We do what we know how to do best,” Gazmir says, clarifying that he doesn’t need people to proclaim Zeneli the best on the block. The goal is simpler: “We want the people to enjoy.”

Zeneli Pizzeria e Cucina Napoletana
138 Wooster St, New Haven (map)
Sun-Fri 11am-10pm, Sat 10:30am-10pm
(203) 745-4194

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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