Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana

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...


  1. I think it's time for me to start weeding out the pizza blogs on my RSS reader. First I Dream of Pizza compares Pepe's to Pizza Hut and now you compare it to Domino's? Either you are just being provocative or your tastebuds are completely shot. Seriously, have you tasted Domino's since you reached adulthood? It's inedible. Cook a Pepe's pie on one of those crappy conveyer belt ovens and it would still be 100x better than that garbage. This isn't coming from a New Haven loyalist either, I'm from Brooklyn and Totonno's is my ideal pizza.

    A suggestion: since your main problem seemed to be the cheese you should probably also try a regular (no mozz) when you go to Sally's.

  2. Anonymous-

    Please see my recent post on Domino's- I was out of line to compare Pepe's to such an atrocious excuse for pizza.

    I appreciate your advice for my future Sally's visit; I'll definitely try the marinara. However, while I've had plenty of great marinaras, biancas, mushroom pies and other great spins on pizza, it is my belief that if a pizza joint can't make a solid Margherita (my 'scientific control') then it's all for nothing.

    Pepe's was by no means bad- just somewhat disappointing considering the hype that surrounds it.

  3. I am long overdue to make the 6-7 hour drive to visit New Haven. On a business trip the last two days I did just try the Mohegan Sun location of Frank Pepe's twice, on two consecutive days.

    The Pepe's pizza at Mohegan Sun was a monstrous dissapointment. Brooks, the cheese used there was an aged mozzarella of average quality and was indeed quite greasy. The tomato sauce, while decent, was not memorable.

    The crust was certainly nicely charred on the second day (the first day was undercooked) with a very nice crispy-chewy texture, but did not have much developed flavor to it.

    The primary flavor note of the pizza was salt. It was, without question, the saltiest pizza I have ever eaten.....if you hung the pie from a tree in a forest you would have deers fighting each other to get a lick. The salt obliterated any balance. I ate two pieces each time and left, dissapointed, with nearly an entire tomato and mozzarella pie still in the box left on the table. I desired not another bite after two pieces.

    I pray with any pizza powers I may have that the Mohegan Sun location of Frank Pepe's does not even approximate the real deal. Pepe's on Wooster Street would have to be SIGNIFICANTLY better to merit the accolades it has received over the years, or the quality has suddenly deteriorated quite a bit (I hope not).

    The pizza I had was certainly better than Domino's, but I would rather make pizza at home than pay for the Pepe's pizza in Mohegan Sun again. Nicely charred and crispy-chewy crust does not by itself make for a great pizza.

    People, please tell me the Wooster Street location of Pepe's is FAR superior to the pizza proferred at Mohegan Sun!

  4. THANK YOU PB, I'm glad I'm not alone on this!

  5. I realize this is an old blog post, but I have to say, why go to Frank Pepe's and NOT order the clam pie? It is what made them famous and the last I had it (April, 2011) it was as good as ever.

    Please don't blame the restaurant if you go there to find out why there is such a fuss, and you then skip the pie that made them famous.



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