By Larry Olmsted, USA TODAY
The scene: New Haven, Conn., is famous for two things: being home to Yale University and as a world-renowned pizza destination. The virtues ofNew Haven pizza have been recorded in books and newspapers worldwide, including this column, which took a close look at the city's two legends, Frank Pepe Pizza Napoletana, better known simply as Pepe's, since 1925, and Sally's Apizza, from 1938. If you have never had New Haven pizza, you owe it to yourself to try one of these, ideally the better (there's no doubt) Pepe's and its famous white clam pizza. But if you have already waited on the long line, or simply can't get in, consider Bar, which offers a very different twist on the New Haven pizza experience and its own unique signature pie - with mashed potatoes.
Bar is everything its two tiny peers are not: big, cavernous, buzzy and open every single night of the year, as well as for lunch Wednesday through Sunday. While it still can fill up, it is easily the most user-friendly of the city's infamously hard-to-get-into pizza places - and houses a brewery and nightclub.
Bar occupies a large industrial space on Crown Street in the heart of downtown, with a brick and glass façade reminiscent of a fire station. Inside it has very high ceilings, brick walls, exposed metal ductwork and gleaming copper tanks and piping comprising the onsite brewing operation. This gives the whole place a warehouse feel, yet softened by lots of exposed wood, including all the tables and chairs, this factory aesthetic somehow comes off as cozy. There is a small loft with a couple of tables overlooking the main dining room, full of group-friendly wooden booths, tables and an intimate U-shaped bar you can eat at, as well the pizza-making area just behind it. The actual pizza oven looks very similar to that at Pepe's, a smallish hole in a brick wall, and incredibly long wooden peels, but according to our waitress, it uses gas rather than coal. There is a whole second side of Bar in the back, a large area given over to a non-pizza nightclub and dance floor.
The food: New Haven pizza is traditionally oblong rather than round, with about as thin a crust as you will find anyplace, crisp and slightly blackened on the bottom. Bar keeps the oval shape on its large pies, which are truly large, come on baking sheets and are cut into a hodgepodge array of slices big and small, some triangular and some rectangular. The small pies are round and nearly the size of most pizzerias' large. The crust here is very thin and somewhat crispy, but not as crisp as its counterparts, and remains flexible enough to fold, like traditional New York-style pizza. It's a lighter take on the local genre and not blackened a la Pepe's or charred like Sally's.
New Haven menus also tend to be limited, with Sally's serving only pizza, Pepe's adding just salad, and Bar following in this tradition with nothing but a house salad and pizzas - except they have a lot more pizzas. Bar partakes in the local custom of offering a clam pizza, using large, fresh and tasty quality littleneck clams. It is not quite as standout as the peerless white clam pizza at Pepe's but it's very good in general. Beyond this they have a much larger than typical slate of toppings, and all are available on a choice of four base pizzas: red, red with mozzarella, white (parmesan and garlic) or white with mozzarella. The clams, along with shrimp and a few other toppings (broccoli, bleu cheese and spinach) are specifically recommended on the white pizza bases. The full assortment is very varied and includes buffalo chicken, artichoke hearts, anchovies, eggplant, fresh and sun-dried tomatoes and all kinds of meat: bacon, meatballs, pepperoni, sausage and chicken. But Bar's unique signature mashed potato pizza is one you will find in few other restaurants.
At the waitress' suggestion we had the pie in full signature style, with mashed potatoes and bacon on the garlicky white base with mozzarella. The mashed potato itself is rich and creamy yet surprisingly light, and there was a lot of bacon. This pizza is both very different and very good. But the creamy mashed potatoes quickly become almost overpowering, and while delicious, this is not a pizza I'd want to eat several slices of. I'd recommend splitting two or more pies here, one of which is the signature.
The quality of the meatballs was very good, making that a top choice, along with the clam, while if you like it spicy, the cherry peppers were hot and delicious and a bit novel. Because there are so many choices and variety is the way to go here, you probably want to stick to multiple small pies unless you have a very large group.
Like the pizzas, the Bar salad, the only other food option here, is both large and very good, and the small is easily enough for two or three as an appetizer. It has seasonal greens, sliced pear, caramelized pecans and crumbled bleu cheese, and these are all high-quality, for a really good and balanced combination of flavors and textures. The other offering of note here is the house-made beers, by the half pint, pint or pitcher, as well as in a sampler of all five varieties: toasted blonde, pale ale, AmBar ale, stout and an ever-changing special. I tried the sampler, and the AmBar was my favorite, light in body but still full of malt flavor. Bar also has an impressive by-the-glass wine list, sangria and specialty cocktails, with much more of a bar focus than New Haven's other famed pizzerias.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes for the mashed potato pie if you are a pizza lover.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 254 Crown Street, New Haven; 203-495-1111; barnightclub.com
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.