New Haven pizza, CT restaurateurs featured on ‘Good Morning America’

Photo of Leeanne Griffin

Connecticut restaurants — including three of New Haven’s most famous pizzerias — got a star turn on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Tuesday, as anchor Lara Spencer spotlighted eateries and how they pulled through the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The segment featured restaurateur Devione Tanksley of My Wife Didn’t Cook in New Britain, who shared his experience of giving back to the community. In the first few months of the COVID-19 shutdowns, Tanksley and his wife, Jaci, opened their soul-food eatery on a night off to feed hundreds of people in the area for free.

“I know how it is to need a little bit of help,” he said on the GMA segment. “My wife and I were like, let’s make some meals for the community. Once we did that, people started coming and supporting us.”

The couple opened their second location in Manchester in February, within the Buckland Hills mall food court. The menu offers crave-worthy fare like barbecue ribs, wings, fried catfish and whiting and complementing sides: collard greens, mac and cheese, rice, cornbread and yams with banana pudding for dessert.

In Mystic, Spencer stopped by Mystic Pizza, immortalized in the 1988 film starring Julia Roberts. Steven Zelepos, kitchen manager and grandson of the original owners, told her that despite the pizzeria’s cinematic history, it too suffered from pandemic-related slowdown.

“I don’t even want to talk about it...that’s how slow it was,” he said. “I’m talking maybe 50 pizzas a day, if that.” But Spencer noted that things have turned around, and the famous restaurant sold more than 1,500 pizzas in one day over the recent Memorial Day weekend.

A segment on New Haven pizza started with a quick vocabulary lesson (apizza, pronounced ah-BEETZ, and “mootz”) and closeups of the white clam pie at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana; the revered sauce, dough and oven at Sally’s Apizza and the Italian bomb pie at Modern Apizza on State Street, with bacon, sausage, pepperoni, mushroom, onion, pepper and garlic.

Visual essay: An inside look at some of New Haven's most famous apizza

“If I was going to the electric chair tomorrow, that’s my final meal,” said Modern owner Bill Pustari.

The owners and operators of the Elm City’s “big three” pizzerias also shared their experiences adapting to the pandemic, including expanding their outdoor dining into the parking lot.

Pustari said he’d often have a line of about 70 customers waiting for takeout, “not wanting to get along. It turned me into a bouncer.” But at the same time, customers were often generous with tips, he said, “and that helped everyone.”

Connecticut's lieutenant governor Susan Bysiewicz tweeted after the segment, tagging her counterparts, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul in New York and Lt. Gov. Sheila Murphy in New Jersey, along with @NJGov, the official Twitter account for the Garden State.

(Remember, Food & Wine magazine recently named Connecticut the #2 pizza state in America -- with New Jersey taking the crown.)

Lt. Hochul replied:

Pizza historians have long studied the origins and allure of New Haven apizza, including Scott Weiner, founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours and columnist for Pizza Today Magazine.

“New Haven certainly has a whole lot of amazing history for early pizza,” he recently told Hearst Connecticut. “Some of the earliest pizza makers in New Haven were there in the 19-teens — certainly early on — and there's a whole lot of information that proves that tons of Italian immigration landed in New Haven, and with Southern Italian immigration just naturally comes pizza.”

Reporter Nicole Funaro contributed to this story.