Over the past weekend on my way home from Massachusetts, I finally had the opportunity to see what New Haven pizza is all about. For those who are unaware, New Haven, CT is one of the lesser-known but nevertheless important characters in America's unique pizza identity, kind of like Marlon Jackson in Jackson 5.
Mid-afternoon, I arrived at the infamous Wooster St., New Haven's Little Italy to order a pizza at Frank Pepe's.
While I was in line, I was hoping to chat up some locals and discuss the famous rivalry between Pepe's and Sally's and meet some fervent Pepe's clientele. While I did meet some die-hards (I met patrons from Long Island and North Carolina, but no locals), no one seemed to have any qualms admitting they also eat at Sally's, and some said they even preferred it over Pepe's!
After about a 20 minute wait, I was seated-
Quick Pepe's pizza history: Italian-born Frank Pepe immigrated to New Haven in 1909 at the age of 17, returning home shortly thereafter to fight for his country in WWI. After the war, he worked briefly at a bakery before opening his own pizzeria and peddled his pies at nearby Wooster Sq. in 1925. In '36, the Boccamiello family that owned the building gave Frank the boot to open their own pizzeria "The Spot," so he moved next door to Pepe's current location.
Not too long after the move, Frank started throwing clams on a white pie and the Clam Pie was born- arguably Pepe's biggest claim to fame. Frank made every pie himself until he passed away in 1969, and in 1981 the Pepe family bought The Spot next door. Gary Bimonte, Pepe's grandson, now manages the place.
Oh yeah, one more thing- pizza in New Haven is called "Apizza" (ah-beets), though I've never heard anyone actually call it that...
Doing my best to sidestep this odd term, I ordered a "large Mozzarella." While I waited, I went in for a closer look at that monstrosity of an oven-
Until I went to Tacconelli's last week, I had never seen such a massive oven. You can tell by the length of those pizza peels on the left that this coal-burner is pretty deep- and it has to be to accomadate the never-ending line outside the joint. At Ed Levine's suggestion, I ordered a Foxon Park birch beer to go along with my pie.
After about 20 minutes, the enormous pizza was slid onto my table:
It's hard to tell, but the pizza is sliced in the most irrelevant and haphazard way- it's not a complaint, in fact I think it adds to Pepe's character. As soon as my fingers could bear the heat, I pulled a 'strip' of pizza the size of my forearm onto my inadequately small plate.
The crust is absolutely the best part of Pepe's pizza. My pizza- er, apizza, was perfectly charred, something I have to admit I wasn't expecting considering how many pies are in that oven of theirs at any given time (someone's doing one hell of a job tending to their product).
It's light and crisp and even and slightly chewy towards the center. While New Havenites call this pizza thin crust (which it is), it's slightly thicker than your average NY slice. There isn't a whole lot of cornicione to speak of, something I wish there was more of, but that's fine. However, I think Pepe's biggest weakness is the quality of their cheese.
This stuff to me didn't have much flavor, and further was pretty damn greasy. It looks the typical Grande aged mozzarella from Wisconsin you see on 99% of New York slices. While these spots might settle for mediocrity, I was expecting a little more from the world-renowned Pepe's.
Is this a case of Pepe's product going downhill since he left the building? Or is this a standard representation of their product? Yes, the pizza was tasty, but not deserving of the "live and die by Pepe's" mentality I so often hear about. Here it comes: while I enjoyed the experience of going to Pepe's, and I would eat there again, to me it tasted like a thin-crust Domino's pizza if it were cooked in a coal oven (retracted 10/28). Am I going to pizza hell now?
On the way back to NYC via 95, I saw this billboard advertising for Pepe's new Yonkers location opening next month (amongst three other locations that have opened outside of New Haven, including at a casino). It reminded me of the all-too-common expansion and exploitation of owner-occupied pizzerias after the founder passes away (Patsy's, Totonno's, Grimaldi's, etc. etc.), and it made me sad.
Maybe this is fate's way of telling me I'm a Sally's man- I'll find out when I visit next month...