Constitution State Staples: Connecticut's Most-Classic Dishes

Connecticut-style hot dogs, burgers, pizzas and lobster rolls await.

By: Amy Kundrat

Photo By: Nick Caito

Photo By: Thomas McGovern

Photo By: Nick Caito

Photo By: Ryan Kundrat

Photo By: Stephanie Webster

Photo By: Caseus Fromagerie Bistro

Photo By: Nick Caito

Photo By: Ryan Kundrat

Photo By: Nick Caito

Photo By: Nick Caito

Photo By: Stephanie Webster

Photo By: Stephanie Webster

Photo By: Stephanie Webster

Photo By: Ryan Kundrat

Photo By: Ryan Kundrat

Photo By: Amy Kundrat

Photo By: Stephanie Webster

Photo By: Nick Caito

Photo By: Nick Caito

Photo By: Stephanie Webster

Photo By: Colony Grill

Photo By: Nick Caito

Photo By: Stephanie Webster

Photo By: Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough

Photo By: Ryan Kundrat

Photo By: Liz Dorney

Photo By: Amy Kundrat

Photo By: Amy Kundrat

Noshing in the Nutmeg State

Though its New York neighbor gets more culinary street cred, Connecticut is a hotbed of local flavors, including a local take on the lobster roll, collegiate-level ice cream and coal-fired, clam-topped pizzas that lure fans from around the world to the Nutmeg State.

White Clam Pizza

Few other pizzas are as revered as Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana’s white clam pizza. Pepe has served its charred and chewy pizzas since 1925 on New Haven’s historic Wooster Street. The elder statesman of New Haven’s well-regarded pizza scene, Pepe’s continues to draw long lines trailing down the block for a chance to enjoy a taste of New Haven’s history from its coal-fired brick ovens. The clam pie, in particular, has inspired hundreds of imitators with few matching the intoxicating combination of Romano cheese, fresh garlic, olive oil, parsley and clams. Combining the Connecticut shoreline’s love of seafood with Pepe’s signature chewy and charred crust, Pepe’s is the place for an authentic Connecticut pizza experience.

Go to: Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana

Steamed Cheeseburger

Family-owned lunch counter Ted’s Restaurant is home to one of Central Connecticut’s specialties, the steamed burger. Ted’s has served its famous version of the steamed cheeseburger since 1959. Each is hand-packed and cooked using a custom-built steam cabinet. But the burger doesn’t become the famous Ted’s Steamed Cheeseburger until the beef is topped with its molten-cheese partner in crime. A 2-ounce block of cheddar cheese is also steamed, then poured over each burger, encapsulating the patty in an envelope of cheese. Rather than fries, Ted’s serves crispy home fries, with — you guessed it — steamed cheese.

Go to: Ted's Restaurant

Pumpkin Pie

In September and October, Michele Albano and her staff transform a truckload of Connecticut-grown pumpkins into 4,000 pounds of pumpkin puree. The pumpkin becomes fodder for the countless iterations of pumpkin pies at Michele’s Pies. Though the shop has at least a dozen different types of award-winning fruit, nut and cream pies, perhaps none are as famous as her Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, as seen on an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Though pumpkin pies can be found in pretty much any grocery store in autumn, Michele’s have a devoted statewide following, thanks to local Connecticut ingredients and a treasured traditional pie crust recipe.

Go to: Michele's Pies

Carpetbaggers

The elder statesman of the South Norwalk dining scene, Match and its chef and owner, Matt Storch, have been a fixture in the neighborhood since 1999. The restaurant is known for its eclectic New American approach with a New England twist, and of them, few dishes are as beloved as Match’s Carpetbaggers appetizer. Local bluepoint oysters are dredged in a semolina-based batter and fried to a light golden brown. Served warm and placed back on their shells, each oyster is topped with chilled beef tartare and a dollop of aioli. The alternating layering of flavors, textures and temperatures packs a nuanced punch, making this dish one of the most-memorable oyster dishes along Connecticut’s seafood-loving coastline.

Go to: Match

Mac and Cheese

Inhabiting a cozy subterranean space off of Whitney Avenue in New Haven, Caseus is home to the state’s most-decadent cheesecentric dishes. Though the restaurant is known for well-appointed charcuterie boards and a gastropub menu, its most-famous offering may be the macaroni and cheese. The Caseus Mac & Cheese begins with orecchiette pasta and a bechamel base, and it features no fewer than six cheeses: Raclette, Gouda, Comte, cheddar, provolone and Schnebelhorn. Topped with brioche breadcrumbs and baked to a golden brown, the dish can be topped with Berkshire pork, house bacon lardons or chiles. Caseus also has a four-wheeled ambassador, The Cheese Truck, which rolls across the state each week serving memorable cheese-filled dishes. 

Go to: Caseus Fromagerie Bistro

Cupcakes

No tiny bake shop, Nora Cupcake has transformed itself from a small operation with a dozen or so flavors to a thriving business with a staggering 300 varieties of cupcakes. This explosion of popularity is no coincidence. Owner Carrie Carella’s creativity, passion for baking and hard work have turned the flagship Middletown store north of Rapallo Avenue (hence, the name NoRa) into Connecticut’s cupcake shop of choice. With so many flavors to choose from, selecting a favorite is an impossible task. But the seasonal specialty Irish Car Bomb is worth waiting patiently until March to enjoy. A chocolate Guinness cupcake, stuffed with a Jameson-dark chocolate ganache, is finished with a Bailey's cream cheese frosting and topped with a malt ball. It's one of the many cupcake masterpieces to be admired and then quickly enjoyed. 

Go to: Nora Cupcake

Cali Burrito

San Diego-style (or California) burritos are alive and well in Connecticut at Danbury’s Green Grunion truck. How did San Diego-style burritos make it all the way to Connecticut? Chef-Owner Paul Mannion spent time in the Southern California city and was determined not to leave his cravings behind when he returned to his home state, so he launched the Green Grunion. What sets this burrito apart from any other in a 100-mile radius is Mannion’s attention to detail and the brilliantly layered components. Each burrito is made to order; vegetables and marinated beef are griddled to maintain their texture, twice-fried french fries are used as a key starch component, and housemade sauces bind each hefty burrito, which is then grilled on both sides.

Go to: Green Grunion Truck

Ice Cream

The secret to the UCONN Dairy Bar’s success is in its cows. Using a century-old recipe and fresh milk from the cows that reside nearby on Horse Barn Hill, the Dairy Bar has been Huskies fans’ ice cream of choice for more than 60 years. The Creamery began bottling milk in the early 1900s, and the UCONN Dairy Bar opened in 1953 to sell its dairy products. The original recipe is used today in its 24 different flavors of ice cream.

Go to: UCONN Dairy Bar

"Bernice Original" Cheeseburger

Shady Glen, a Manchester roadside diner, is home to one of the most-unique cheeseburgers, easily identifiable by its trademark crispy American cheese “wings.” To achieve the unusual effect, Shady Glen places four slices of cheese onto each burger patty, casting them purposefully beyond the edge of the burger in order for the cheese to fry directly on the griddle. The lot is flipped upward for its signature Flying Nun appearance. Do save room for dessert: Shady Glen began as a dairy and farm store in 1948, and it still serves delicious homemade ice cream.

Go to: Shady Glen

The Black Duck Burger

The Black Duck Cafe has served burgers and seafood from a retired barge on Westport’s Saugatuck River since 1978. The uneven floor and weathered nautical vibe lend a seaside dive bar patina that is beloved by its regulars and a curiosity to all who drive by. In-season, whole belly clams are excellent, but the Black Duck Burger is the restaurant’s year-round specialty. Sauteed peppers, onions and mushrooms smother a 6-ounce Angus burger patty — available in a 3/4-pound size for heartier appetites. The Black Duck’s character and burger prowess make it a Connecticut culinary landmark.

Go to: Black Duck Cafe

Ricotta Gnocchi

Serving classic Italian cooking with a deference for well-sourced ingredients, Liana’s Trattoria in Fairfield is a cozy hidden Italian gem. Liana DeMeglio is a warm matriarchal presence in her restaurant, making dinner often feel like a meal in her own home. If there is one Italian dish revered in this part of Connecticut, it is her airy housemade gnocchi, offered with a choice of three sauces: sage butter, Bolognese and creamy Gorgonzola. Beginning with local ricotta cheese and finished in the hands of DeMeglio, these gnocchi forever change expectations.

Go to: Liana’s Trattoria

Arepas

The humble Venezuelan arepa, a pan-roasted or fried corn cake filled with a variety of ingredients, is the foundation for one of Norwalk’s most-popular restaurants. Valencia Luncheria began as a tiny BYOB eight-table luncheonette, but it has since expanded its soulful Latin American comfort food and drink menu while staying true to its arepa, empanada and rice-and-beans roots. Valencia boasts 30 arepa offerings, from the vegetarian Aphrodite — a mango-and-avocado combination — to the heartier meat-filled Carlo, a chicken, avocado, queso and fennel arepa. Dining in, order a bunch of arepas and try them with Valencia’s twin signature sauces, a cilantro-based green sauce and a smoky chipotle-based red sauce.

Go to: Valencia Luncheria

Cow Trax Ice Cream

It could be the gentle symphony of moos from a nearby herd of cows, or the bucolic 150-year-old dairy farm setting, but Newtown’s Ferris Acres Creamery is one of Connecticut’s most-beloved ice cream destinations. With more than 50 flavors to choose from, the shop usually has something for every taste, but the majority of ice cream fans are there for just one; the locally inspired Cow Trax is many a regular’s top choice. A rich and creamy vanilla base is densely packed with swirls of peanut butter and mini chocolate chips. Open seasonally and on certain holidays, the shop offers cones, cups and, around the corner, a to-go window for pints, which is a nifty way to get an ice cream fix without the wait. 

Go to: Ferris Acres Creamery

The New Englander

One of Connecticut’s favorite hot dog stands, Super Duper Weenie first began operation as a food truck in 1992, before moving to its permanent Fairfield location in 1999. Owner Gary Zemola, a culinary school graduate, is a strong proponent for fresh and well-sourced ingredients. As a result, all of Super Duper Weenie’s toppings are made in-house (including a top-secret homemade relish), house-baked rolls and fresh-cut fries. Inspiration for the menu’s hot dog offerings stretches from California to New York, but the house favorite is the New Englander. Sourced from family-run Hummel Bros. in New Haven, each hot dog is spit and grilled before being generously topped with sauerkraut, bacon, raw white onions, mustard and relish.

Go to: Super Duper Weenie

White Mashed Potato Pizza

In a town known as a destination for pizza lovers, relative newcomer Bar has its own cult following. By far the most-coveted pizza is the white mashed potato pizza. Topped with a deceptively thin layer of garlicky mashed potatoes and aged cheeses, the ultra-thin pie is even better topped with crisp, chopped chunks of bacon. All of Bar’s oblong pizzas are cooked in a natural gas-burning brick oven — a departure from the coal-burning ovens of their famous New Haven “apizza” neighbors. Tall glass windows along the facade allow light from Crown Street to brighten the split dining space, an airy factorylike setup with two bars and a house-brewed beer menu that nearly rivals the size and following of its pizza menu.

Go to: Bar

Doughnuts

Served warm, Lakeside Diner’s cinnamon-sugar-coated doughnuts have been a daily ritual for some patrons devoted for more than 50 years. The cozy 50-year-old Stamford breakfast and lunch spot has plenty of diner charm and a full menu, but its small cake doughnuts are the signature move. Rolled in cinnamon and sugar, the outer layer of the doughnut has a hint of a crust, which gives way to a soft and moist interior. The diner is fairly small and homey. If you’re lucky to score a seat at one of Lakeside’s few tables, or the counter, you’ll also enjoy a view of Holts Ice Pond. If not, it’s just as easy to grab a box of doughnuts to go.

Go to: Lakeside Diner

Hot Dog with Famous Sauce

In a state known for its hot dog worship, one spot stands out for its longevity and a closely guarded recipe. Known by its regulars as “Cappy’s,” Capitol Lunch has served hot dogs with a signature Greek-style meat sauce since 1929. Cappy’s opened as a shoe-shine shop that sold hot dogs to entice new customers, then flipped its business model to focus solely on the meat-topped hot dogs that customers demanded. While the staff members won’t give away the recipe for their meat sauce, they will give you some hints (no hot sauce, no beans; just meat and spices) and even let customers buy it by the pint. Capitol Lunch uses Martin Rosol’s hot dogs, made specially for the restaurant. The hot dogs are grilled and served on a steamed bun with mustard, sauce and diced raw white onions. The key to their success may be how little things have changed over the years. The same family runs the restaurant, and prices stay low: a mere $1.90 per hot dog.

Go to: Capitol Lunch

The Original Hamburger Sandwich

New Haven gets raves for its pizzas, but it’s also home to the hamburger. Founded in 1895, Louis' Lunch claims the lofty title of “the birthplace of the Hamburger Sandwich.” The restaurant's simple and straightforward juicy burgers are made daily from a proprietary blend of ground beef, cooked to order in the restaurant’s original open-flame cast-iron grills, and served on toasted white bread. Don’t even think about asking for ketchup. The family-owned Louis' Lunch will not oblige any condiments, with the exception of cheese, tomato and onion.

Go to: Louis' Lunch

Roast Chicken

Mill Street Bar & Table in the Byram neighborhood of Greenwich celebrates American seasonal fine dining in one of Connecticut’s most-elegant tavern-inspired settings. The executive chef and managing partner of Mill Street, Geoff Lazlo, along with partner Bill King, has formulated a menu filled with rustic yet sophisticated dishes that embrace the bounty of land, farm and sea. The whole or half pasture-raised chicken, served with herbed spaetzle and corn, is homey and classic. Each bird begins with a lengthy 24-hour brine before being roasted over the kitchen’s wood-burning oven. Divided and served simply on a plate, the roasted chicken is crispy on the outside and supremely juicy, with hints of smoke from the fire.

Go to: Mill Street Bar & Table

Hot Oil Pizza with Stingers

Bar-style pizza is characterized by its defiantly thin crust, best sampled at Colony Grill in Stamford. Open since 1935, the post-Prohibition-style tavern has a menu that is dedicated to its crispy and perfectly round pizzas with one very special topping: Colony Grill is the home of the wonderfully greasy and spicy Original Hot Oil Bar Pie. Plainly, it’s a cheese pizza topped with chile-infused oil. Up the spice quotient with “stingers,” Colony Grill’s vernacular for "charred jalapenos." 

Go to: Colony Grill

Kanibaba

A restaurant at the leading edge of the invasivore movement, Miya’s Sushi is one of the country’s pioneers of sustainable sushi. Since opening as one of New Haven county’s first sushi bars in 1982 by Chef Bun Lai’s mother, Miya’s has shifted its focus in the last decade to what the team calls “future sushi,” following Seafood Watch’s sustainable seafood guide and relying heavily on invasive species and plants for the majority of its menu. The centerpiece of the menu is Kanibaba, featuring Chesapeake Bay blue catfish stuffed in potato skin, topped with toasted organic cow’s milk cheese, topped with a lemon dill remoulade, and finished with deep-fried Asian shore crabs that are gathered in nearby Branford. It’s delicious and forward-thinking food that is challenging notions of what sushi can be.

Go to: Miya’s Sushi

Luigi Bianco Pizza

Stamford’s Fortina Pizza is an energetic and fun-loving place, attracting a range of diners all eager for straightforward modern Italian comfort food. Twin wood-fired ovens turn out the majority of dishes on the menu, which includes antipasti, pastas, classic Italian entrees and pizzas. A list of about a dozen pizzas includes a peerless white pizza called the Luigi Bianco, an intoxicating combination of Robiola, burrata and Parmesan cheeses, drizzled with pureed black truffle. The earthy, rich truffle against a chewy Neapolitan-style crust makes this one of Connecticut’s favorite pizzas. 

Go to: Fortina Pizza

Lobster Roll

There is no shortage of warm, buttery lobster rolls along the Connecticut coast, but one veteran stands out. Open seasonally since 1947, Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough is beloved for its classic New England seafood sandwich. Abbott’s serves three different sizes of hot lobster rolls: the Original Hot Lobster Roll, with a quarter pound of lobster meat; the “OMG” Hot Lobster Roll, with 7 ounces of meat; and the “LOL” Hot Lobster Roll, packed with a full pound of lobster. Each is served with melted butter on a toasted hamburger bun — a signature departure from the split hot dog roll typical to Connecticut style. Beautiful Mystic River views, plentiful outdoor seating and a BYOB policy help seal Abbott’s popularity as a southeastern Connecticut summer destination.

Go to: Abbott's Lobster In The Rough

Root Beer Float

Stepping through the doors of Bethel’s Sycamore Drive-In Restaurant feels like stepping back in time. Painted wooden booths, enamel-top tables, old gas station memorabilia and carhop mementos set the scene. The diner has been serving Dagwoods (its signature French-style burger) with root beer floats since first opening as a carhop in 1948. The Sycamore’s homemade root beer is crafted using a secret family recipe that has been passed down from its original owners. Served ice cold in a frozen glass mug, the soda is even better with a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream for the perfect throwback root beer float — an ideal accompaniment for a Dagwood.

Go to: Sycamore Drive-In Restaurant

Smoked-Trout Dip

Situated along the Saugatuck River, The Whelk is the locus of Westport’s thriving dining scene, representing one of the state’s most-creative seafood menus, thanks to James Beard Award-nominated chef and owner Bill Taibe. The New England-chic dining room with its statement white marble bar befits a sophisticated oyster bar, but The Whelk goes beyond with craveworthy small plates. Every meal at The Whelk should begin with the restaurant's addictive smoked-trout dip, served with crispy trout skin and Parker House rolls.

Go to: The Whelk

Roast Clam Special

There is no better place to enjoy the summer bounty of the Connecticut shoreline than the roadside clambake known as The Place in Guilford. The cash-only outdoor restaurant is open seasonally, weather permitting. The unpretentious outdoor dining space is a collection of about 50 bright-red tables, tree-stump seating and a single large painted wooden menu towering above. Although the menu has expanded over the years, the dish that started it all in the 1940s, the roast clam special, is still the dish to order. Littleneck clams are cooked directly over an open flame until they open. They’re served with melted butter and a dollop of cocktail sauce. Veterans know to embrace the informal clambake experience and come with coolers of drinks and prepared appetizers.

Go to: The Place

G. Swensen Meatballs

Located in the rural Litchfield County town of Washington, Community Table is home to Nordic-inspired cuisine in a Scandinavian-modern setting. Chef Marcell Davidsen, a native of Denmark, works closely with nearby farms to curate much of the restaurant’s seasonal menu, but one of its most-popular dishes remains year-round: G. Swensen Meatballs. Familiar yet exotic, the Swedish meatballs are plated over a signature gravy and accompanied by small dishes of lingonberries, pickles and potatoes. The dish was inspired by the owner’s visit to the G. Swensen family-run restaurant in Torekov, Sweden.

Go to: Community Table