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Pizza, A Love Story
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by Jay Seaver

"Is this the best pizza in America?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: Gorman Bechard's film about the famous "apizza" restaurants of New Haven, Connecticut could have taken the path of following how pizza came to America, took its first steps of evolution into its most ubiquitous forms in that city, and then spread from there, but instead it stays hyper-local and specialized. It's the kind of movie that, from a commercial perspective, initially seems like it won't travel at all and is kind of an act of madness. Those movies are kinds of great, though, a drill-down that maybe doesn't increase general knowledge but feels like half specific insight and half gleefully useless (but delightful) trivia.

That trivia starts coming early with the very words New Havenites use for this dish: Pizza is "apizza", pronounced "a-beatz", a plain pie does not necessarily include cheese - that is labeled "mozz" on the menu and pronounced "moots". It came to America via the Italian immigrants who came to find a job at Sargent Hardware and, having found one, wrote to their family and friends, initially a sort of sideline for bakeries just making simple bread. In 1925, Frank la Pepe opened what is today Pepe's, though it was a small concern until 1935, with Sally's and Tony's opening in 1938, with the latter rebranding itself as "Modern Apizza" in 1944. The original locations still have the original ovens from that time, monsters that take hours to get up to 600-700 degrees Fahrenheit, giving the crust a distinctive char. Locals will tell you that the continuous use of those ovens for eighty-odd years imbues rich smoky flavor that even the most well-intentioned imitators will never match.

Naturally, the film is not entirely about pizza; one can watch it and see Bechard laying out the history of his city, a cycle of immigration, assimilation, and gentrification that extends well beyond New Haven. It's not the deepest possible dive into the topics by a long shot, but tying it into the story of the city's pizza likely gets it a bit more attention even within the city. Bechard never loses his focus, but he does well to establish that the Italian-American neighborhoods where these apizza shops opened and remain despite their no longer necessarily being Italian-American neighborhoods have their own arc that's tied in with the restaurants themselves, and that one shouldn't necessarily ignore that as the price of getting to eat delicious pizza.

But make no mistake: This is a movie put together by people who take pizza much more seriously than those of us who eat it often but occasionally take it for granted, and it comes across in ways that might be kind of fine distinctions - the inevitable shots of partisans making their case for the city's best pizza or the long line-ups are cut and framed as completely reasonable behavior rather than detached and astounded. To the degree that one does inevitably have to acknowledge that whether you like Pepe's or Sally's is a minor concern, they transform what could be snobbery into enthusiasm. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy at one point jokes that "apparently, pizza divides us" during a friendly competition over which state does it best, but it seldom threatens to divide people in truly rancorous manner.

That mostly celebratory attitude covers for times when there's not that much to say, but also adds a lot of genuine affection when the film slows down for the inevitable bits of staccato repetition or repeats a story that maybe isn't as delightful as the filmmakers think (yes, certain people know a private number that lets you bypass the line for Sally's). Bechard and his crew do a fair job of digging up archive material.and stretching relatively small quantities to cover a fair amount of bases. Having spent a lot of time working on music documentaries, he dips into that rolodex to suggest that certain people tend to include a stop in New Haven on their tours for the express purpose of having a slice, with a dry Lyle Lovett and an animated Michael Bolton proving to be big fans (Frank Sinatra, obviously, was unavailable for comment).

The movie has no time for pizza beyond local New Haven apizza, which can be a double-edged sword, as you can sometimes see the outline of a movie that touches on more around this one. On the other hand, it's easy to lose details as everybody tries to make something with the broadest possible appeal. If you do love pizza (as most people do), you probably want to know about New Haven's claim to fame just to have it in the back of your head should you ever be in the area.

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originally posted: 08/30/19 23:27:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.

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