Mystic, Connecticut: Small Towns

Mystic, Connecticut is home to the Mystic Seaport Museum, a sort of watery version of Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. It’s a treasure, even if it is a scrubbed and sanitized version of a 19th century seaport town. There’s always something going on there, including a spring sea songs festival.  

Mystic Seaport is so famous that many visitors skip its host town. That’s a mistake. Mystic is actually a village that’s part of the city of Groton. It has a population of just 4,200 but it feels much bigger because it’s surrounded by Groton, New London, Stonington, and other settlements that collectively contain about 275,000 residents. Mystic, though, gets my vote for the most coastal charm. It has 3 historical districts and a thriving downtown. There is also an aquarium, an art museum that’s separate from that of Mystic Seaport, a historic house museum, and a cantilever swing bridge that lots of people photograph. It’s really just an industrial-style arched bridge that’s sort of ugly, but it connects the Groton side of the village with the Stonington side.

Above all, the bridge is a visual reminder of Mystic’s past. The Mystic River–the name is a mishearing of the Pequot word missi-tuk–empties into Long Island Sound. The Seaport Museum may be cleaner than it would have been during the great Age of Sail, but this slice of Connecticut has always looked to the ocean. A sub isn’t a sandwich around these parts. Anytime military budget cuts are discussed, Connecticut politicians mobilize! Groton has a submarine base and is home to General Dynamics/Electric Boat, which builds subs. Both employ a lot of people. In New London you’ll find Pfizer, a firm that practically defines the term “Big Pharma.” New London is also home to the Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut College, an expensive private institution, and a University of Connecticut branch campus whose tuition is roughly two-thirds cheaper.

I mention all of this because they also symbolize the region’s class divide. Like Mystic Seaport, downtown Mystic is gentrified. The outskirts are dotted with the ranch houses and the humbler homes of those who work in the region’s industries, as well as the grand homes of inherited riches and manicured developments filled with McMansions for new-money professionals. The movie Mystic Pizza got that right.

Though it’s easy to bemoan gentrification, those parts of town are nicer places to hang out. Name another village of 4,200 that has 80 shops downtown. They exist (and come and go) largely by offering things hard to find on Amazon. There are untold numbers of gift shops, artisan galleries that encourage browsing if not buying, and numerous specialty shops. Some of the more unusual ones sell Polish pottery, Tibetan goods, marine supplies, spices, and handmade chocolates. My return trip will definitely include a trip to the Mystic River Chocolate Café.

Mystic is a good foodie town. I’ve not been there, but I’ve heard good things about Bravo Bravo, an Italian eatery, though there are so many pizza shops, you might want to branch out. Some of the downtown restaurants are pricey, but there are several pubs, a microbrewery (Barely Head), 3 bakeries (Lighthouse, Li, and Sift), and a butcher shop if you’re in a DYI mood.

What everyone wishes to know about, though, is Mystic Pizza. In the interest of public service, I checked it out for you! First, though, don’t believe everything you see in a movie. The joint shown on the screen was a set in a building a few doors down from the actual restaurant, which is owned by the Zelepos family. (They really are of Portuguese descent.) It’s been on Main Street since 1973, but the movie brought so much spillover fame that the interior was redone to approximate the set. Hey, why look a gift slice in the mouth? The inside is a bit darker than the faux site, but a TV screen on a back wall shows the movie on what appears to be a continuous loop. Walls are also festooned with pictures of celebrities, especially classic film stars and baseball legends.

Mystic Pizza sells thin crust pies. My wife, two friends, and I devoured a large pizza with vegetables (onions, green peppers, mushrooms, broccoli pieces) and pepperoni. (Yeah, it’s an odd combo, but you try pleasing four people!) We split fries as an appetizer that were sprinkled with herbs and came to us crispy and piping hot. The pie dough was baked to perfection and the ‘za was tasty, though my palette failed to detect a “special sauce.” It didn’t rock my world enough to keep me from trying another nearby joint, but the experience was a blast.

Rob Weir

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