I am not an expert in New Haven pizza. My pizza credentials are rooted in Long Island and NYC styles (two very different but both very satisfying interpretations).
A couple of years ago I had my first chance to swing through New Haven and tried Pepe's (Wooster St) based on its strong reputation. We ordered the pepperoni pie. The experience was astounding. Absolutely incredible, despite the very long wait outdoors in cold December drizzle.
More than a year passed before our next opportunity to get to New Haven. We hit Pepe's (Wooster) again, this time at an off hour (3:30PM) with only a short wait. Again ordered the pepperoni. And again, absolute pizza nirvana.
Last week, our third chance to visit New Haven came up. But we decided to try Modern after reading comments by its vocal supporters. It also helped that we were on a tight schedule for lunch, Modern opened 30 minutes earlier, and word was that we wouldn't need to wait. All true.
There is no doubt that Modern is more accessible and "comfortable" than Pepe's original location. Service was quick and friendly, although Modern does share Pepe's affinity for thimble-sized drinking glasses -- order the pitcher!
Our pepperoni pizza arrived quickly. This being only our second New Haven pizza (apizza!) parlor, we could immediately see the local DNA -- the scorched crust (yum), the amorphous shape, the serving pan. Our mouths began to water again.
Make no mistake, Modern's pizza was very good. But -- and there is a but...
It just didn't have "IT". The X factor. The intangible flavor formula. There was nothing obviously wrong with Modern's pie. All the pieces of the puzzle seemed to be in place, but it just didn't elevate into that transcendent realm. Being "merely" very good is nothing to be ashamed of -- in plenty of cities, Modern's pie could easily be the best 'za in town.
But against our experience with Pepe's, Modern just wasn't quite there. The perfume of Pepe's crust. The saltiness of Pepe's cheese. The intensity of Pepe's chunky pepperoni (Modern's was the more usual slices). Pepe's is divine -- Modern was "just" very good.
Looks like we'll be waiting in line again the next time we visit New Haven!