Connecticut is somewhat akin to Disney World for roadfood lovers. It’s a great state for so many different sub-genres, including New England style seafood like fried whole-belly clams and lobster rolls, pizza, ice cream, hot dogs, hamburgers and probably more that I’m either not thinking of or haven’t experienced there yet.
My wife and I used to drive to the southern reaches of New England nearly every year to visit our close friends, Rich and Tina, who lived in central Connecticut with their two children during that period. They’ve since moved up to the north-central part of the state, just below the Massachusetts border and Springfield. And we’ve made fewer visits to see them over the past decade, since we started focusing our travels on seeing as many state capitol buildings as possible.
This year, we decided to stick to vacations in regions we could drive to in a reasonable amount of time and were overdue for a road-trip to New England. So we made arrangements to visit Rich and Tina over the summer. We planned to go from there to Salem, Massachusetts and the North Shore region above it, which is famous for fried whole-belly clams, a favorite of mine that I hadn’t had in about a decade. We were then going to work our way down the Connecticut coast, making stops in various towns.
I was psyched for this vacation and had done a lot of online research to plan a food itinerary. But as fate would have it, I developed what turned out not to be a serious health issue at the wrong time and we had to cancel the trip.
We partially made up for that this weekend by visiting Rich and Tina, with noteworthy food stops in southern Connecticut both going and coming, and also a memorable day of eating and sightseeing with them Saturday. There were no added stops in eastern Massachusetts and along the Connecticut coast, as we had planned over the summer. But it was a fantastic weekend nonetheless and we packed a lot of great eating into our limited time.
During those years when we were more frequent visitors to Connecticut, Denmo’s was our most frequent food stop in the state. It’s a stand with only outdoor seating, but a varied menu full of items I like, including fried seafood, warm and cold lobster rolls, hamburgers, hot dogs, ice cream and more. You can find burger and hot dog stands all over the country, but the addition of high quality seafood sets Denmo’s and similar stands in Connecticut and the other New England coastal states apart. Another thing that sets Denmo’s apart, for us, is their location. Most of the stands with good seafood are near or right on the coast. But Denmo’s is in south-central Connecticut, right off I-84, which we take through much of the state, from southwest to northeast, to get to Rich and Tina’s.
We just wanted a snack as our friends had dinner waiting for our arrival. My wife ordered and enjoyed fried mushrooms. I considered a warm lobster roll, which I had there once before. It’s made Connecticut-style, which means they sauté the meat in butter before placing it on a grilled New England-style bun. While I was tempted to order another of those Friday, I can get a good lobster roll in Philadelphia. I can’t get good fried whole belly clams anywhere near me and it had been much longer since I’d eaten them. So I skipped the lobster roll and went with a large order of fried clams. Good whole-bellies are nothing like the frozen fried clam strips that come in a box at the supermarket. These were a nice size, extremely tasty and not the least bit greasy. I was in a state of food-induced euphoria after finishing them that lasted until we got to Rich and Tina’s a couple hours later.
We enjoyed Tina’s wonderful Chicken Tikka Masala for dinner later that night and spent the rest of the evening catching up. We had a fairly full afternoon and early evening planned for Saturday.
It started with lunch at the Manchester, Connecticut outlet of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, more commonly known simply as Pepe’s by their large, devoted following. I’ve eaten at their original location in New Haven a couple times, but Manchester was much more convenient and Pepe’s manages to maintain very high standards at their other locations, or certainly at the one in Manchester, where we also ate the last time we visited Rich and Tina.
Pepe’s serves the New Haven-style pizza that they originated, which is also known as “apizza” by locals. It’s made in coal-burning brick ovens that reach extremely high temperatures. The crust is a remarkable combination of thin and crispy with a nice chew. I like thin-and-crispy, but not with cracker-like rigidity. Pepe’s crust has a similar texture on the exterior, but you don’t miss out on the satisfaction of a good chew when biting into it.
One of the trademark pizza flavors in the New Haven area and on Pepe’s menu is a “white clam pie.” It is a pizza crust topped with clams, olive oil, garlic, grated Parmesan or Romano, and lemon for squeezing. Mozzarella cheese is optional but purists tend to skip it, as we did Saturday. We also ordered a regular pizza – called a tomato pie at Pepe’s – half sausage, half mushroom.
I also tried Foxon Park root beer, a local brand sold at Pepe’s. While it didn’t supplant Spreacher’s as my favorite, it was very good. I even had a little of the house salad and enjoyed it, thanks largely to the tasty house dressing. You won’t often catch me eating salad on here.
From Pepe’s, we moved on to our major sightseeing stop of the trip, the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford. He lived in the home with his family from 1874 to 1891. Inside photos were unfortunately not permitted while touring the house, but I did manage some shots of the exterior, as well as the museum next door. The house is gorgeous, both inside and out.
It was also next door to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. The author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Twain’s neighbor, but we didn’t realize that until we got there and didn’t have time to also tour the Stowe House. We may do that during our next visit.
We stopped back at Rich and Tina’s home for a bit before heading out to our dinner destination. I was hoping to get in a meal in Springfield, Massachusetts, and we had planned to go to a downtown bar and restaurant called The Student Prince & the Fort that has a German theme. But they were packed when we checked on getting a last-minute reservation, so we moved on to Plan B, the Bamboo House Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant in the southern part of Springfield. While I love Cantonese style Chinese food, I knew that Rich, Tina and my wife enjoy southeast Asian cuisines. So the mix seemed like it would be a good fit for us, and it was.
They had some interesting drinks on the menu. Tina tried a French coffee with condensed milk.
For appetizers, we went all-Vietnamese, sharing crispy spring rolls, summer rolls, and a shrimp and pork yellow pancake.
Rich and Tina each had a huge bowl of pho, while my wife ordered our favorite dish when we eat Vietnamese closer to home, a bowl of vermicelli with pork and assorted vegetables. They were all too busy eating to mention any dissatisfaction with their meals.
I stayed true to form and ordered a slight variation on one of my Americanized-Chinese stand-bys, Shrimp with Lobster Sauce and Vegetables. The broccoli, snow peas and baby corn were a welcome addition, although it was missing the minced pork I always hope for, but which is becoming gradually less common.
We finished the evening by watching The Big Lebowski. My wife and I are huge fans of the film and have seen it many times, but it was the first time for Rich and Tina. We always enjoy turning new people onto the Dude and Walter.
We left for home the following morning, but not without a food agenda for downstate. I had narrowed our choices down to a couple possibilities and we decided on Caminuccio’s Pizza & Subs of Newtown, Connecticut, just before hitting the road.
I won’t hesitate to say that Connecticut is the best pizza state in the U.S. While they are known primarily for the New Haven-style apizza that we had Saturday at Pepe’s in Manchester, not all of the state’s great pizzerias serve that style. Carminuccio’s makes a fairly traditional Northeastern pizza. They just happen to do it extremely well.
They actually have a fairly large menu that includes a nice array of stuffed breads.
My wife tried a veggie wrap. (no snide remarks, please)
I ordered a medium, 14” basic Mozzarella and sauce pie, half plain, half “Stern’s Garlic Crown.” That’s one of their specialty pizzas that is topped with crumbled sausage and roasted garlic and peppers. As expected, it was fantastic. Carminuccio’s also has the secret to making crust that is simultaneously crispy and chewy.
I’m going to go out on a limb and call this the greatest pizza weekend I’ve ever had.
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that Connecticut is a great ice cream state. They have numerous noteworthy stands and shops. But as we left Carminucci’s, we were almost out of Connecticut and I still hadn’t eaten any ice cream. I was determined not to cross the state line without having some. We discovered our first option, a shop very close to Carminuccio’s, wouldn’t be open until later in the afternoon. So we headed further south, to a place we had tried a good number of years ago and which I’d been to a couple times, the Ridgefield Ice Cream Shop. It was a Carvel’s at one time and has the look and shape of a classic, old-time soft-serve stand. But their soft-serve is denser and more flavorful than any other I’ve ever had. It’s like custard without the eggs.
We wound up foregoing the soft-serve. My wife opted for one of Ridgefield’s seasonal hard ice cream flavors, pumpkin-praline. I was having a difficult time making up my mind for a moment when I noticed that they offer peach milkshakes and went with that impulsively. I’ve ordered peach shakes several times in recent years. This one was as good as any of them and probably better. I could see the counter-guy putting peach slices in with the milk and ice cream before starting the mixing process. I was afraid he would use peach-flavored syrup. I shouldn’t have been. They only use the best ingredients at the Ridgefield Ice Cream Shop.
That’s probably going to be the end of our travels for 2021. While we didn’t take any major vacations for the second consecutive year, it felt good to at least get away for several weekends, including the just-concluded memorable one in Connecticut. Hopefully we’ll stay healthy when it’s time to travel next year.