As a New Yorker, when I travel the Northeast, I think of Cape Cod for the beach, Vermont for snow, and Maine and New Hampshire for a walk in the woods. Of course tiny Rhode Island is where I’ll go if I ever have a need for big mansions that sit along the sea. But I could never figure out Connecticut.
Just last month, Harper, Marissa, and I ventured across that nearby border to walk some of Connecticut’s state parks. But with rain and a previously feverish infant, we decided to forego the trails. We opted instead to take a food tour from Westport to New Haven, which provided this New Yorker good reason to return to the Constitution State.
Begin with Breakfast
Obviously, you may say. But it’s not as obvious when I tell you that breakfast should be a pie. As this is a foodie trip, we’ll defy good eating habits and concern ourselves mostly with taste. And the desserts at Michele’s Pies of Westport (and Norwalk) are second to none.
Following her grandmother’s recipes, Michele started baking in her Vermont kitchen and sold her pies at farmers’ markets. But as demand for her pies kept exceeding supply, she knew she needed to open up a shop.
“Can I see a menu?” a customer asked, searching the countertop for a to-go paper copy.
“We don’t have one. Our pies change too frequently,” said the cashier, proudly citing the consequences of using fresh and, when possible, locally-sourced ingredients.
I ordered the butterscotch pecan pie and Marissa got herself a personal-sized caramel apple crumb.
The nuts were candied and crisp and drizzled with butterscotch; the thickened molasses was gooey and could stand on a plate without the support of the phenomenal crust. I could rave about the pies for paragraphs, but the twenty-seven first place blue ribbons earned at the National Pie Championships, many of which hang in the brightly lit shop in Westport, help to supplant my lauding.
We decided to eat only half of our pies that day, saving space for our next meals across the state. But after we boxed up our desserts, we encountered a snare.
“Can I have the rest of my pie?” Marissa asked.
“No. We need to save our appetites,” I explained.
Harper looked back and forth between Mommy and Daddy as we debated proper eating habits in front of her.
“I figure why add more calories by eating other meals,” Marissa said, having rationalized her entire argument from the very first bite. “I’ll just eat the pie.”
“Because you can’t eat pie all day,” I explained.
“Why not?” Marissa asked.
Harper lifted her eyebrows as if to say, Yeah, why not Daddy.
Lunch at Pepe’s
I quickly learned that my explanation to Marissa’s pie query was quite wrong. There’s a rule to live by in Connecticut: Pie shall follow pie. In 1925, Frank Pepe opened a pizzeria in New Haven and the tradition of his recipes and style lives on. Numerous publications have rated Pepe’s the best pizza in America. Even with lines out the door, competition flooding the block, and cantankerous waitresses serving pies on cafeteria-style lunch trays, Pepe’s is always busy. (But have no fear, the line moves rapidly and the curmudgeons are quick, eventually warming, conveniently enough, when its time to drop the bill.)
The general rule of thumb with exceptional pizza is to keep it simple. Original is best and cheapest, so why stray? (At Pepe’s, an original pie, which is topped with sauce and parmesan, is about $13.00. For an extra three bucks, go ahead and throw some mozzarella on top, if you must.) Of course, I never follow my own thumb and found myself swayed into the special pie section of the menu.
I ordered the white clam pizza, which was double the price of a regular pie.
Marissa and I split our elliptical pizza in half; Marissa took the original side, I worked on the clams. (Harper munched on her plastic rings.) The crust had a perfect crispy-to-doughy ratio and the fresh ingredients made that first bite as deliciously savory as that initial forkful at Michele’s had been wonderfully sweet.
While the white clam pizza, with its chunks of garlic and whole clams, was a great slice, it was not a great half of a pie for one person to ingest alone, as it provided a lingering aftertaste of garlic and ocean. I was grateful that some of my clam pie trespassed onto Marissa’s regular half, causing her to label the slice as tainted and abandoning it on the tray for me to enjoy. Those slices–with just a hint of clam and garlic–were most delicious.
Was it the best pizza in America? That title I cannot bestow upon this excellent establishment. (I live in New York, after all.) But I’m willing to say that it’s worth driving to Connecticut for at taste of Pepe’s.
Dinner at The Spread
The up-and-coming South Norwalk area, trendily known as SoNo, (which is almost reason enough not to visit a neighborhood), is home to one of the best restaurants in Connecticut: The Spread. The establishment has an elegant recycled theme: the tabletops are original barn doors, ball jars sit upon the doors and hold the utensils, (the jars in the bathroom contain the soap), a giant fan occupying most of the ceiling appears to have been pieced together from a heap of scrap metal, and, thanks to one of the owners dismantling his vintage china rental company, the mismatched collection decorates all the barn doors. While the decor is lovely, The Spread is all about excellent food that is dictated by the seasons and farmers.
Each week, menu items are swapped out for the foods that chef Carlos Baez encounters at the market. With his unorthodox, yet innovative pairings–black truffle risotto balls drizzled with truffle honey or creamy burrata complemented by fresh strawberries and an olivette espresso balsamic–one would expect Baez to have the scars of a veteran chef. But the baby-faced, precocious cook looks like he just received his first fake ID. Yet Baez has logged many hours in kitchens, cutting his teeth in his parents’ taqueria in Mexico City and then perfecting his skills at a sushi restaurant down the street from the taco shop. (I still have sleepless nights knowing that I skipped over The Spread’s fish taco.)
Baez replaces the usual with the unexpected: veal meatballs nested in a dollop of creamy polenta, which he had whipped up to taste reminiscent of ricotta; roasted shrimp and a heavy cream chorizo sauce infused with shallots and thyme covered deep-fried quinoa cakes that somehow tasted like healthy latkes; the seared lamb saddle layered atop slices of wild mushroom, slivers of black garlic, and individual Brussel sprout leaves was presented like a noodle-less lasagne.
My favorite flavor mated thick rectangular slabs of crispy pork belly with pickled rhubarb, all covered in a spicy maple syrup. It tasted like somebody delivered breakfast from heaven.
All of The Spread’s offerings are served as small plates ($4-$11) or medium plates ($12-$19). While the style is similar to tapas, which I abhor (who wants only one bite of something delicious?), the portions are considerable enough to split. For those who dislike sharing, there are larger plates, too. The one that the house swears upon is its Brick Chicken. Served with polenta and garden greens, the juice of the poultry is sealed into its pan-fried skin, which is slathered in a buttery gravy. I’ll swear by it too.
Note: The owners still tend bar and create some excellent cocktails.
The Moral in Eating at the Best Restaurants in Connecticut
Connecticut has some excellent food. We should have left room for dessert.