Driving south down the leafy, stone-walled roads of Connecticut in the direction of Long Island Sound, I come eventually to an old New England seaport whose name is now forever linked with Julia Roberts. This year Mystic Pizza, a small pizzeria on Bank Square which gave its name to that bouffant film, celebrates its 40th year in business. The people opposite, at Bank Square Books will tell you that Amy Holden Jones's screenplay for Mystic Pizza is really about second-generation Portuguese waitresses in nearby Stonington, not Mystic at all. But the inspiration for such an engaging title was a little red-and-yellow pizza sign she passed, sandwiched between the Bank of America and the Baptist Church, on driving into Mystic: Mystic Pizza. Had they called the film “Stonington Pizza” I doubt Ms Roberts's breakthrough movie would have achieved quite the same impact.
Coming downhill in my car, I see that same small piece of movie history sticking out on the left-hand side. It certainly seems like a good reason to pull over, stretch my legs and find out what the real Mystic, rather than the movie version, is like.
I park behind the bank itself, a big white building in Greek Revival style, and Kimberley, the manager, tells me no one will mind. “We get a lot of people parking here because they see the Mystic Pizza sign and can't believe it really exists. I think we're more interesting. This was the headquarters of the Mystic River Bank back in 1851.”
Nevertheless, I take a look inside the world-famous pizza parlour. It's bright and functional just like the film. No big-haired waitresses these days, but lots of Mystic Pizza merchandise on sale alongside real slices of pizza and the film running on a loop on large TV-screens.
I buy a boxed pizza for later and head down to the old iron drawbridge that lets pleasure boats and yachts into the seaport. Beyond it are plenty of shops making the most of the town's curious name: Mystic River Yarns, Mystic Drawbridge Ice Creams, John's Mystic Tavern. But I turn left and head down Gravel Street, a winding road that hugs the shore. White 19th-century clapboard buildings run along one side of the street gazing out across to the port. They are odd-numbered from 3 to 31, but No 25 is missing. A couple walking their dog stop to explain that because 25 is on the intersection with Clift Street, and because Colonel Amos Clift built this little side-street in the 1830s, No 25 was numbered as 2 Clift Street in memory of him.
The houses come in a variety of classic American styles: Cape Cod Colonial, Greek Revival and Italianate. One of the first was built by Captain Avery Brown, or so the plaque tells me. It's a Cape Cod-style cottage constructed in 1812, the year that America renewed its war on Britain. Later, at the Seaport Museum, I find out that Captain Brown served alongside Nathaniel Palmer, the Stonington sealer who was the first American to set foot on Antarctica back in 1820. Unfortunately this charming little cottage has its view of the port obscured by what is known locally as the Spite House, a Greek Revival structure built in 1836 with the deliberate intention, so local rumour goes, of sticking out far enough to spoil Captain Brown's view. It was John Fellowes who built this grandiose mansion. Shame on him.
Gravel Street is testimony to the importance of seafaring to this prosperous New England town. Number 15, was built in 1835 by a coffin-maker who sold it in 1847 to Captain Gurdon Gates, who added an Italianate veranda of the kind that was fashionable in the mid-19th century. In 1866, Captain Gates did Mystic proud by making the run around Cape Horn in record time. In the Seaport Museum there's a spyglass presented to him in gratitude for “rescue at sea” by a Mr A T Wade of Liverpool.
Tales like these run all the way along Gravel Street. That splendid Italianate villa at No 19 was constructed in 1861 by Captain John Williams, who made the journey from New York to San Francisco in a record 89 days and four hours. His clipper, Andrew Jackson, had been built in Mystic. No 21 was built in 1840 by Elisha Denison, whose family pretty much fill up the whole cemetery on the other side of the drawbridge. The Denisons arrived in Mystic in 1680. At No 27 (built by a wealthy net-maker) there's an outbuilding which served as a station on the “Underground Railway” for escaped slaves. And No 29 was built in 1837 for a Captain John Appleman but owned a century later by Captain Ned Beach who commanded the US nuclear submarine Triton. In 1960, Triton completed the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe.
Given how quiet and Connecticut-cute Mystic is today, you really need a street like this to remind you that all this heritage once belonged to the heroes of a phenomenally adventurous age, when to go to sea was to court fame, fortune and danger in equal measure.
Adrian Mourby travelled with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk) which offers a seven-night fly-drive from Boston for £459pp, with flights, car hire but not accommodation. Boston is also served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Delta (0871 221 1222; delta.com) and American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk).
Welcome Center at Mystic Depot: 00 1 860 572 9578; mysticchamber.org