Connecticut's pizza dominance can never be denied. But beyond the famous names that have been around for decades, we're taking a look at some new kids on the block. These are some of the most noteworthy pizzerias that have fired up ovens in Connecticut over the past five years.
Keith Vibert wrote the business plan for Mondo when he was a student at Central Connecticut State University. While he was working for Kurt Kruczek at Naples in Farmington, the two decided to open the family-friendly Middletown pizzeria in late 2010. Today, Vibert is the sole owner of the Main Street restaurant, but credits Kruczek for his role in its success. "Everything we do down here wouldn't be possible without him," he said.
The New York-style pizzas, cooked in a 550-degree gas-powered brick oven, feature whole-milk mozzarella, scratch-made sauce and fresh produce. A section of artisan pies include an arugula and prosciutto combination (Vibert's favorite); a truffle pie with goat cheese, ricotta, red onion, pine nuts and truffle honey; and a puttanesca, with anchovies, capers, roasted garlic, kalamata olives and red pepper flakes. The "oozy egg" pizza with runny yolk has a following among Wesleyan University students, Vibert said.
Vibert tries to strike a careful balance between keeping the menu fresh and not messing with established favorites. "I don't want to be stagnant or stale…but I don't want to change what works."
>>Mondo is at 10 Main St. in Middletown. 860-343-3300, mondomiddletown.com.
Camille's Wood-Fired Pizza
Pizza brought Camille Malaspina and David Noad together. They met while working at Luna Pizza in Simsbury, and several years later, they're engaged, parents and running the chic, comfortable Camille's in a Tolland shopping plaza. Before the couple opened the pizzeria that bears Malaspina's name in August 2013, Noad further bolstered his experience at Naples Pizza in Farmington and Harry's Pizza in West Hartford, and helped open Middletown's Mondo in 2010.
Camille's fans line up for the ultra-thin crust pies, which cook quickly in the 1,000-degree wood-fired oven. One of the biggest sellers is the Billy's Bianco with pistachio, cream, ricotta, goat cheese, red onion and truffle honey – a tribute to another of Noad's former bosses, Billy Grant of Grant's and Bricco. Bacon-and-egg is another favorite, with sunny-side-up egg, pancetta, fresh mozzarella, chives and truffle oil.
Craft beer is another draw at Camille's, with an ever-rotating selection of taps. Beer aficionados will find a variety of eight local and regional drafts, often including rare or hard-to-locate favorites from Woodbridge's New England Brewing Company.
"We always knew we were destined to do something," Malaspina said. "And we just kind of followed our hearts and our passions. Pizza is both for us."
>>Camille's is at 23E Fieldstone Commons in Tolland. 860-896-6976, camillespizza.com.
At Guilford's Bufalina, husband and wife team Matt Scialabba and Melissa Pellegrino try to run their pizzeria like Italian farmers, using seasonal ingredients, with local products whenever possible. They learned this movement firsthand as they traveled the country, taking jobs on organic farms with on-site restaurants. Before opening Bufalina in 2012, Scialabba and Pellegrino turned their Italian culinary experience into two cookbooks.
At the diminutive space in Guilford, they fitted the space with an oven imported from Italy that blazes at about 950 degrees. Three pizzas enjoy permanent status on the menu: the Bufalina signature pie, with San Marzano tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella and basil; the Tre Carni with sausage, speck and salame piccante; and the classic Margherita, with mozzarella, scamorza, tomatoes and basil. Season changes bring specials: a Cavalo Nero pie with braised Tuscan kale, garlic, spicy Calabrian chili oil and buffalo mozzarella is on the menu for fall, along with the Cipolle (blistered onions, scallions, Mystic Cheese Company's Melinda Mae and bacon.)
With just a handful of seats – 10 counter stools, a window seat and first-come-first-serve patio seating in nice weather – reservations are highly recommended. But Bufalina's size actually makes for more communal dining, Pellegrino said. "It's been great. We have an unbelievable customer base… It's nice to see that people really appreciate what we do; [they're] extremely supportive."
>>Bufalina is at 1070 Boston Post Road. in Guilford. 203-458-1377, bufalinact.com.
When Zula Bar & Restaurant on Main Street closed, the owners of Dish Bar & Grill across the street decided to snag the space, which has potential for an enviable rooftop patio. Bill Carbone and Dan Keller named the new eatery Sorella, Italian for "sister."
"I've always wanted to do another Italian restaurant. It all kind of worked out together," said Carbone, a veteran of Hot Tomato's. "In downtown Hartford, wood-fired pizza wasn't among [the offerings.]"
Sorella debuted in mid-November 2013. The imported Stefano Ferrara oven, wood-fired to a blistering 900 degrees, turns out a dozen Neapolitan-style specialty pies, ranging from classic stracciatella with extra virgin olive oil and basil to the less traditional crispy calamari with arugula and pepperoncini; barbecued chicken with red onion and aged cheddar; "bolognese" with slow-cooked meat sauce and crispy pasta squares. Carbone estimates Sorella chefs rotate the menu "six to eight times a year," based on availability of seasonal ingredients.
In its first year, feedback for Sorella "has been great," Carbone said. "Now that we know our oven, we'll be getting more adventurous [with it.]"
>>Sorella is at 900 Main St. in Hartford. 860-244-9084, sorellahartford.com.
Krust's immediate success in Middletown's North End actually caused growing pains right from the start.
When good friends Kevin Wirtes and Rich Garcia opened the pizzeria and bourbon bar in January 2013, the 50-seat room with a long, polished yellow pine bar was intimate and comfortable. But as word spread about the duo's impressive wood-fired pies, innovative cocktails and massive selection of spirits, the crowds grew. Krust was "busting at the seams," Wirtes said.
By year's end, they were already planning to expand the dining room. After raising funds through a Kickstarter campaign in June, Krust introduced an additional 400 square feet and 24 seats to its space, with more to follow.
"We probably expanded sooner than we wanted to but we're trying to respond to customer demand. People were sick of the long waits; they wanted more space," Wirtes said.
Since Krust's opening, Garcia has been optimizing the menu, choosing more premium ingredients and working more closely with local farms, he said. The Brussels pie, with roasted sprouts, mozzarella and fresh garlic, is still a favorite.
>>Krust is at 686 Main St. in Middletown. 860-358-9816, krustpizzabar.com.
Maria Brighenti-Gregoire and Carl Rynecki opened the cozy restaurant overlooking the Farmington River in April 2013. Though their open kitchen with a gas-fired oven turns out several composed small plates and salads, flatbreads are the star. ""[These are] something we thought we could focus on as a particular food item that we could excel at, rather than a sprawling menu," said Rynecki.
Quercibella's flatbreads – made with a dough comprised of Italian 00 and regular soft wheat flours – boast some of the most unique flavor combinations in the region. One of the best-sellers is a Moroccan lamb creation, with feta, harissa, spinach and currants. A Satan's Kingdom flatbread brings the heat with Nodine's andouille sausage, spicy kimchi, jalapenos, sriracha and "dippy egg," and a Sloppy Joe special uses ground beef, cheddar, scallion and housemade French fries. Rynecki is also working on a pad Thai flatbread, translating the flavors and ingredients of the classic noodle dish onto a crust with fish sauce, ground peanuts, raw Savoy cabbage, bean sprouts, chicken, shrimp and fried tofu.
"We study [these] first, test it out on the staff," he said of the more unconventional flatbreads. "We let the staff give feedback, and then we make a judgment… You take those ideas and work with them until they're exactly what you want them to be."
>>Quercibella is at 280D Main St. in New Hartford. 860-238-4261, quercibella.com.
Owners Daniel Parillo and Derek Bacon admit there was some animosity when they decided to open Da Legna in New Haven three years ago. After all, they are just a few doors down from one of the city's "big three," Modern Apizza on State Street.
The perceived backlash from what Bacon calls a "fickle" pizza-loving crowd wasn't the pizzeria's only hardship. Just weeks after their December 2011 opening, a fire destroyed the new restaurant, taking it out of commission for almost a year. But Da Legna returned to open right before Christmas in 2012, its owners more motivated than ever after months of renovation and research.
Parillo, who's spent his entire career in the restaurant industry, was inspired by food and cooking early in life. As a child, he would spend summers at his grandparents' home in Italy, where they owned a farm, and his grandmother would cook meals for the employees in a wood-burning oven.
Da Legna's unique crust begins with a sourdough base, but that's all Parillo will divulge about his secret recipe. "It's my baby," he said. The wood-fired oven burns at 900 to 1,100 degrees; traditional pies feature customers' choice of meat and vegetable toppings. An "artisanal" pizza list includes creations with prosciutto, burrata, fresh clams, mashed potato, rosemary chicken, smoked salmon and Italian tuna.
The restaurant set itself apart from New Haven's other pizza luminaries by offering a full menu of creative salads and tapas-style small plates. Adding these options was a strategy that helped bring in new customers who might have otherwise been reluctant to try a new Elm City pizza, Bacon said.
"We picked the hardest city in the world, to open a business doing what we're doing," said Parillo. "But we've made it."
>>Da Legna is at 858 State St. in New Haven. 203-495-9999, dalegna.com
Pizza "was something I'd been thinking about for years," said proprietor Jonathan Rapp, who opened the pizzeria Dec. 5, down the street from his well-known River Tavern in Chester. "Pizza's an obvious choice for a restaurateur. I should have done it 25 years ago."
With the help of River Tavern chef Matt Wick, who has spent time in Italy and has experience cooking in wood-fired ovens, Otto took shape in a former Main Street art gallery. The menu is simple, with a dozen pre-designed pizzas, two salads, two "antipasti" dishes and one gluten-free "non-pizza" entrée. The oven is wood-fired, cooking pies in 900-degree heat. "You get that wonderful char and almost instantaneous rise when it hits the oven floor," Rapp said.
Otto offers a classic margherita with local mozzarella and stracciatella, pepperoni with pickled red cherry peppers and other constructions with housemade pork ragu; eggplant with scamorza and red onion; egg and bacon with thyme and ricotta; and clams with clam cream, chiles, parsley and garlic. "I was looking for pizza where the ingredients were the same quality as River Tavern," Rapp said.
With Otto's one-year anniversary approaching, Rapp says he's considered the idea of expanding now that they've grown accustomed to working with pizza. "It took us a while to really learn the oven and the dough. You're working with a natural product, cooking in an oven fired by natural material. I wouldn't say it was an art, but there's definitely a craft to it. The variety that you get is part of the charm. Each pizza is a little different."
>>Otto is at 69 Main St. in Chester. 860-526-9445, ottochester.com.