Something magical happens when you drive far enough up Whalley Avenue: the urban grind of New Haven disappears, and you enter Westville. Suddenly everything is quaint, and even the Chinese restaurants, laundromats, and countless other strip mall businesses develop a neighborhood feel. As Yale students, maybe we were just especially conscious of the fact that we were no longer in the “Yale bubble,” but the change seemed deeper than that.
Ernie’s, we realized, is the perfect neighborhood place you’ve never heard of: a restaurant that attracts few visitors from afar, and is instead content to serve wholesome food to the people who live nearby.
We arrived at Ernie’s on a Saturday night at the shockingly early hour of 5:30 PM. While we would have had to wait God knows how long for a table at Pepe’s, Sally’s, or Modern, here we walked into a mostly empty restaurant.
The emptiness, we hoped, had nothing to do with the pizza quality, which we expected would be great. In fact, a number of New Haveners believe that Ernie’s serves the best pizza in town. Consider the following review by Dave P from Yelp.com:
Is there even language GRAND enough for me to describe my love for Ernies. I grew up near New Haven and have always loved the downtown places, especially Modern, but Ernies is the best pizza in the area for my money. It has a sweet sauce, incredible Grande cheese and a slightly thick crust that is fantastic.
In addition, I’ve lived in New York and Brooklyn for years and still need to come home every month or two to stop in at the best pizza that anyone will ever have. Period.
Thanks to reviews like this, we entered the restaurant with high hopes. We were initially impressed by the ambiance of the place: more so than any other NHPP-reviewed eatery, Ernie’s feels like a restaurant straight out of Little Italy, with mock stucco walls, wood panelling, fake poinsettias, and a giant, gleaming espresso machine. There are also quirky, homey details, like the license plate behind the counter airbrushed with Sesame Street’s Ernie, and a sign on the wall that reads “Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy.”
When we were seated in our booth, we ordered a red pie with mozzarella and the Ernie’s Special, the same sausage- and mushroom-topped classic that seems to be the special of nearly half of New Haven’s traditional pizza places. Our waitress asked if we wanted salad, and we gave in, figuring it would be nice to start with something light and fresh. The salad, which came out immediately, was a generous bowl of not-especially-fresh iceberg lettuce topped with a few cucumber slices and some grape tomatoes. It was nothing special, but then again, like everyone else, we were here for the pizza.
And when the pizza arrived, it looked great. Graced with an appetizing sheen of oil, the mozzarella on the red pie was slightly browned, just enough to add an extra layer of flavor. The crust, though not charred, was a beautiful chestnut brown, and was thick enough on the edges that we were sure it would have real character.
The cheese on the pie was delicious, with that classic milky flavor that pizza enthusiasts love. There was not, however, much tomato sauce, and what there was didn’t have much flavor, leaving the pie lacking the robust tomato-y-ness found at places like BAR and Pepe’s. The crust, though it looked great, also failed to live up to our expectations. Puffy and crisp, it tasted floury, and had little of the chew we hope to find in the best New Haven-style pizza.
Unfortunately, our experience went downhill from here. The Ernie’s Special likewise failed to meet our expectations, though perhaps this was simply because we had already tasted superior renditions of the same toppings at Roseland and Zuppardi’s, and not because this pizza was actually that bad. In particular, the sausage, rather than being juicy clumps of fresh-ground pork, came in the form of crumbly, grainy slices with a pungent off flavor that wasn’t quite masked by a generous amount of fennel seed. Similarly, the mushrooms didn’t seem fresh.
In sum, something was just off, and we would expect better from the signature pizza of any establishment. We ate less than half of the Ernie’s Special, and no one was excited about taking the leftovers. Still, our pizza-eating experience at Ernie’s wasn’t terrible, and we felt the pizza was perfectly appropriate for a neighborhood pizza joint. But ultimately, if you’re looking for a destination pizzeria, Ernie’s may not be the place for you.
We give Ernie’s Pizzeria a two-star rating on our five-star scale, signifying that while it is a perfectly decent pizza place, it is somewhat below-average when compared to New Haven’s top pizzerias.
Ernie’s Pizzeria 1279 Whalley Ave New Haven, CT 06516 (203) 387-3362