The Modern Story
New Haven in the midst of the Great Depression saw factories still churning, its immigrant population increasing and the rise of a business that the city is now so known for; the pizzeria. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, hundreds of restaurants and bars, and dozens of pizzerias opened in and around New Haven. It was boom time that allowed this traditional Neapolitan dish to be served to a larger ethnic community, staying open until 3 AM and attracting the famous and the infamous.
Modern Apizza’s story began this way with an Italian American man who began a dynasty of pizzerias in Greater New Haven. On March 4, 1911, Anotonio “Tony” Tolli was born in Plainville, CT to Italian immigrants from Marigliano, outskirts of Naples, Itlay. At two years old Tolli was taken and raised in Italy until 1930, then returning to America at age 18. Upon arrival Tolli lived with his uncle, Giuseppe Marzullo, who ran the oldest Italian pastry shop in New Haven. They were located on Wallace Street one block from Grand Avenue in the Mill River neighborhood, which was thickly settled with Italian immigrants. It was there that Tolli first learned to bake. Being illiterate, Tolli taught himself how to bake by counting how many bags of each ingredient was used in the baking process. Marzullo’s son Joseph also ran a pastry bakery on Washington Avenue in the Hill neighborhood, another Italian enclave. In 1934, Joseph Marzullo and his cousin, Antonio Tolli, opened a pizzeria down the street from Marzullo’s confectionery and called it Washington Pizzeria. They lasted in business here for two years when Marzullo returned to his pastry shop. Tolli, however decided to take his business to a different neighborhood entirely.
Tony Tolli moved his business to the mostly residential East Rock neighborhood flanking the industrial Mill River section, and opened up Tony’s Apizza at 874 State Street in 1936. He had a coke (a coal byproduct made in New Haven) fired brick oven built in the back of the rented commercial space, designed to make only pizza. For 25 cents a pie customers found their way to the neighborhood’s only pizzeria at the time. In 1937, 14 year old Nick Nuzzo wandered over from his house nearby on East Street. He began working for Tolli that year, and his nickname “Sonny” can still be found scribbled in pencil on a column in the basement. Along with Nick, Tony’s wife, Grace, worked along side.
With the onset of World War II, global tension and armament led to local factories switching to expanded shifts gearing to the war effort. Pizzerias benefited from all the extra mouths to feed at the factories, and deliveries rose. While many men and women went to fight and support the war effort overseas, pizza bakers stayed behind to feed the hungry workers. Tony Tolli found that although the pizza business was booming, so was his rent. So he looked for another pie worthy outpost, and found one five blocks down State Street, at the corner of Olive Street. In 1942, he purchased the house and store there and fitted it out to become the next Tony’s Apizza. Tolli also nicknamed that place State Apizza Place, a name that never stuck. Tony went on to open three more pizzerias including Tolli’s Apizza in East Haven in 1954. Tony’s friends created a nickname for him; Tony Apizza, and to the chagrin of his wife, she was known as Mrs. Apizza!
Young Nick Nuzzo continued to work at the old restaurant and a returning war vet found his way to the savory smells of the pizzeria. That man was Louis Persano, who returned in 1944 and took over Tony’s lease. Persano had already trained with Frank Pepe a few years prior so he was a veteran baker. Since Tony Tolli was running his pizzeria with the same name up the street, a new name had to be conceived. Nick took it upon himself to ask around and he ventured two doors down to Polish American, John Wozniak’s Humphrey Pharmacy. Wozniak suggested calling it “Modern” since they had a new owner, and the name Modern Apizza stuck ever since. Along with Nick, Louis was joined by two of his brothers, John & Fred, to work at the restaurant. By 1945, Modern was ordering pizza boxes for deliveries and pickup orders from the Strouse Adler Co., a local corset maker who was one of the country’s first recorded pizza box makers.
In the late 1940s Modern’s pizzas ran 60 cents a small pie and while customers waited they could play the pinball machine located near the service window. The Persano brothers eventually opted out of the pizza business, finding different occupations. Louis became a local fireman in 1949 and then sold the place to Nick Nuzzo in 1952.
Pizza’s popularity in America blossomed during the 1950s. Returning war vets stationed in Naples were wowed by Italian pizza, and demanded it back in the states. Even in New Haven, where pizzerias had already made their mark for over 30 years, the pizza craze continued, with over 50 pizzerias opening up in the area within 10 years after the war. Nick was joined by his brother Fred who learned the trade, and then opened his own place, Grand Apizza, in Fair Haven in 1955. Modern continued to pump pizzas out to a loyal following through the 1950s-60s.
New Haven’s Redevelopment era shook up almost every community through massive urban renewal and clearance. Many of the older Italian neighborhoods were completely removed for highways, schools, offices and housing. Between 1955 and 1980 most of the old pizzerias had closed or moved to outlying suburbs. Luckily upper State Street was not on the chopping block and Modern remained a constant presence. Loyal customers were more than happy to pay 90 cents for a small plain pie around 1960.
The old coke fired brick oven almost became obsolete. By 1967, the production of this coal byproduct ceased in New Haven. While other pizzerias either converted to anthracite coal or to gas fired ovens, Modern converted their oven to oil. Four years later the bricks began to collapse in the oven and the upper and front portions were replaced to its present shape. In 1968, William “Billy” or “Butts” Cretella began working for Nick Nuzzo. Billy had previously worked with Tony’s Apizza, which had closed and was torn down for redevelopment. Billy made pies, prepped and served as well, and he became an integral part of Modern’s front line. Nick’s son Barry joined the team as well, and the three men were a staple sight behind the counter. These pie men would cook a small red pie costing customers $2.70 in 1974.
By the early 1980’s upper State Street was becoming a ghost town. Many of the street’s businesses were shuddered and its street life had dwindled. Modern Apizza had the fortune to turn out amazing pizza which was noted by various newspapers. The Hartford Courant touted that the pizza was as good as on Wooster Street, but without the lines. Modern’s reputation grew during this time until Nick Nuzzo’s son, Barry’s death in 1987. Nick was now ready for retirement after working here for 50 years. He found a willing and dedicated buyer who promised to sustain and grow the business. William “Billy” Pustari purchased Modern in 1988 and, along with his wife, built its reputation to a national level. What used to be a neighborhood pizzeria, now gained great prominence in the pulsing heart of New Haven’s pizza scene and lines began to form out the door.
At Pustari’s helm, Modern expanded its dining area and its kitchen in 1992, adding an additional oil fired brick oven. Along with more pizza being served, Modern achieved more awards. The local Advocate poll found Modern ranking number one, and Playboy Magazine gave modern the top mark for their pizza. Pustari’s reputation for quality pizza landed his recipes at a baseball field in Seattle, WA and convention centers in Denver, CO, Louisville, KY and Sacramento, CA. History is still fully part of the Modern’s spirit; vintage images line the walls and gazing eyes peering deep into the kitchen can see Billy Butts slinging pizzas in the charred brick oven. Longtime customers and families who are loyal to Modern will attest, Modern Apizza was, is and will be their favorite pizza, and the only pizza that matters for generations to come.