Pepe’s and Sally’s are Tourist Attractions. Brick Oven is the Real Deal.

Illustrated by Emily Cai

I hope I’m not alone in saying that America’s obsession with pizza psychologically disturbs me. I’m still recovering from the traumatic experience when I thought I found a nice jean jacket in the clearance section in Forever 21 and I grabbed it off the rack, only to be jump-scared by the giant  cartoon pepperoni pizza embroidered on the back of the garment. Below the pizza, the jacket asked in white-stitched lettering, “PIZZA FOR LUNCH? The worst part is, I’m sure someone bought that jean jacket. That’s the scary truth: pizza sells. Around 2014, Jennifer Lawrence made loving pizza a core part of her identity, and it worked. 

This pizza conundrum is especially prevalent at Yale. I’ve always been bothered that New Haven, a magnificent city with a soul of its own, has often been reduced to its pizza. Yale’s own undergraduate orientation program essentially mythologizes Sally’s and Pepe’s while treating the rest of New Haven as a backdrop. And apparently, the only serious contenders for the title of “Best New Haven Pizza” are sit-down restaurants located in the most heavily gentrified parts of the city, which to me is not what pizza is about (if pizza is about anything).

Don’t get me wrong: I love Sally’s, Pepe’s, Modern, Bar, etc. But, speaking as someone from Chicago, if you ask a Chicagoan what their favorite pizza spot is, they’re probably not going to answer with the name of one of the famous chain restaurants, such as Giordano’s or Lou Malnati’s or Uno’s. Instead, they’ll name some local pizzeria you’ve never heard of, likely one with no indoor seating and no parking lot. Because good pizzerias have good pizza: they don’t need to sell you on the restaurant experience, and they don’t need to sell you on their claims to historicity. Good pizza speaks for itself, and Brick Oven’s pizza makes itself heard.

Brick Oven’s thin-crust pies are served from a small brick building on the corner of Elm Street and York Street. There’s a black-and-white pop art mural of Muhhammad Ali on the side of the building, which was painted by Harlem-based artist Alili Maimaiti, also known as Redbootsali. The front of the building is made of red brick, topped with a blue sign with “Brick Oven” spelled out in huge neon-red letters. The parking lot in front of the building is small, and a good portion of it is covered with stacks of firewood. The logs do not just serve as fuel for the eponymous brick oven inside: they are available for purchase and they are also used as stools in the small outdoor seating area adjacent to the storefront.

Venturing inside the building through the glass doors, one finds themselves in a comfortably cramped space. Behind the counter, you can see employees shoveling pizzas in and out of the giant brick oven. Against the interior of the front wall, there are a few seats where you can watch the magic happen. If you happen to have a few quarters on you, there are some of those nostalgic sticker-dispenser machines. But you’ll never wait for long. The Brick Oven experience is efficient—around fifteen minutes after you place your order, you’ll get your pizza, you’ll grab your soda from the nearby fridge, and you’ll be off. 

If pizza is just pizza, as I claim, then you may be confused as to why I have immersed you in the physical Brick Oven space while barely mentioning the pizza itself. This is because I choose to emphasize the familiar charm of Brick Oven’s simplicity, which is often overshadowed by the deified pizza restaurants of Wooster Square. Even though I love their pizza, sitting down at Sally’s or Pepe’s feels somewhat false and touristy. I know they’re historic New Haven businesses, but their environments are artificially constructed; they lack the authenticity of Brick Oven, where making pizza is the focus and the environment is completely built around that.

Brick Oven’s pizza reflects the business’s authenticity. The pizzas are large and their crusts are thin, allowing for a superior slice-folding technique. In every box, slice sizes vary wildly—not only is this useful for pacing oneself while eating, but it is also an ode to their efficiency in making and cutting pizzas. They have a wide selection of outstanding toppings, and their eggplant, onions, and mushrooms are legitimately incredible. My lexicon of culinary terms, as you can probably tell, is extremely limited. But I don’t need fancy terms to tell you this: Brick Oven’s pizza is good. And I’ll leave it at that.

We take pizza too seriously, especially at Yale. In preparing to write this article, I asked my roommate Kevin why he loved Brick Oven, and I expected him to burst into an extemporaneous monologue that would give me goosebumps. Instead, he gave me a two-word answer that verged on circular reasoning: “The pizza.” I waited for him to expand on that. He didn’t. And I’ve come to admire the simplicity of his response. Brick Oven’s mystical authenticity is not a P.R. trademark: it is a byproduct of their genuine focus on making good pizza efficiently. And day after day, their success in this pursuit is proven by the ever-rising pile of Brick Oven boxes on our common room table.

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