To get from Yale to Wooster Street, the short, quiet strip of a street that is known as New Haven’s land of pizza legend, you cross a bridge over the Metro-North tracks and pass through a tree-lined neighborhood dotted with churches and war memorials that list long columns of Italian surnames. The street is flanked by street lamps bearing Italian flags. The businesses on either side are family-owned places that look as if they’ve been around for years: Libby’s Italian Pastry Shop, Consiglio’s, Maresca’s Funeral Home. The man sweeping away the leaves in front of the liquor store has a straw broom, a black fedora, and looks about 90. At night, the iron arch that spans the street is lit up in red, white, and green, a glowing portal into a neighborhood that still calls itself Little Italy. This is the street where Frank Pepe, a baker from a small town in Southern Italy, built the brick oven from which the first legendary New Haven pizzas emerged.
Founded here in 1925, Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana has the honor of being the first pizza place established anywhere in Connecticut. The restaurant has since been enlarged and, in 2006, embarked on an expansion project that will open new branches in Connecticut, New York, and, in the summer of 2010, even in the Mohegan Sun casino. In more than 80 years, almost nothing has changed in the kitchen, but Pepe’s has grown from a small neighborhood pizza place to a phenomenon known worldwide. Gary Bimonte, grandson of Frank Pepe and co-owner of the restaurant, is determined to carry on the mission begun by his grandfather and guarantee the immortality of what he calls “the pizza that all others pizzas are judged by.”
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My first trip to Wooster Square: I arrive at half past noon to a street that still seems asleep. The park and neighboring playground are empty, and rival pizza legend Sally’s doesn’t open until five. But when I get to Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana, I walk into a stuffy, bench-lined waiting room crowded with people shedding scarves and mulling over pizza choices. There’s a Yale girl with her parents discussing her scientific ambitions in the same breath as Pepe’s famous clam pizza. It was invented here. A middle-aged couple wrapped in leather jackets come in — the man with cropped silver hair, the woman with red lipstick and a Roman nose. He leans in and says, “At night, people line up on the sidewalk…” Once the door has opened to let in an old couple and a Korean-speaking party of five, a waiter half-opens the door to admit me. “Just one?” he says. “This way.” Only a half-hour wait this time.
I get a seat in the back of the restaurant, diagonally across from an old guy in a navy blue sweater and a baseball cap who also happens to be named Frank. When his pizza comes — plain, just tomato and mozzarella — he spends a moment just looking at it before settling down to cut it piece by piece, eating each bite with a look of immense contentment and solemnity on his face. When I offer him the jar of hot pepper flakes on my table, he says no. He likes it as is. Looking up from his pizza for the first time since he’s begun eating, he smiles. “I’ve been coming to this place since I was five years old.” For a while, I just watch him, bent over his pizza as if the rest of the world didn’t exist. He has been eating this stuff for almost his entire life, and he knows how to eat it well: slowly, bite by bite, down to the crust. Even after all those years, the sense of wonder is still there.
The Original Tomato Pie. When you walk into the restaurant, red neon lights above the kitchen announce this iconic phrase. So that’s what I order when I sit down to eat with Gary Bimonte.
“Do you like garlic?” he asks.
Bimonte comes right out from the kitchen to meet me, and we shake hands. He has nice, doughy hands that seem built for making pizza. He is a big, tall man with a gray mustache, glasses, a friendly smile, and the same uniform that everyone in the kitchen wears: a neat apron over a white Pepe’s T-shirt. He moves with the confidence of someone who belongs here, both as a family member and as an innovative businessman in his own right. He is proud to head a kitchen that’s stocked with “the best stuff,” proud that pizzas are made and delivered under his direction, proud to talk about the restaurant that he’s been working at for nearly thirty-five years. And as a grandson of Frank Pepe, a little bit of reverence is his due. When I first came into the restaurant, the manager, Steve, told me I had to talk to Bimonte and nobody else. He’s in the family, he said.
When a fifteen-year-old Gary Bimonte started working in the restaurant in 1975, he earned 75 cents an hour. In those days, the place stayed open until midnight. When the shop closed around one in the morning, they would all head to a nearby Howard Johnson’s for breakfast and a good time. Bimonte calls the Pepe’s of that era “truly a family business,” and all the workers, both kids and grownups, were “related one way or another.” And with their late hours in the kitchen, they had to work hard and joke around. At 16, Bimonte began to work on weekends and saw his hourly rate jump to $1.25. One thing followed another in a long chain of promotions and successes, and now, along with six of his cousins, he owns the Pepe’s franchise. He didn’t always know that he would one day be at the head of his grandfather’s business, but he’s been practically living in the Pepe’s kitchen since his mother, a single parent, brought him there as a child. Looking back on his career, he can’t really remember a moment when he made the choice to make Pepe’s pizza his life. Was it destiny? “I guess it was just meant to be,” he says.
At this point in our conversation the tomato pie arrives. It is steaming hot; messy; red with crushed tomatoes, visible chunks of garlic, and only a little bit of cheese. I dive into it and get tomato sauce down my chin, all over my hands and on the table. Bimonte is understanding as he watches me enjoy my pie, explaining the real meaning behind the pizza’s label of “original.” He tells me of his grandfather’s first pizzas and about the early days of the business, how Frank Pepe kept the business running through the Depression, how he was instrumental in getting a bar permit for restaurants all over town, how he was always generous and made his pizzas affordable for even the poorest immigrants in the Wooster Square area.
When I ate at Pepe’s for the first time, my companion Frank had reminisced about how, back in the thirties, Frank Pepe had a pizza cart and sold slices of tomato pie up and down Wooster Street for a nickel or a dime. There had been maybe 20 other pizza places scattered throughout the neighborhood then — many of them must be long gone by now — but people would come to Pepe’s anyway. When Frank the regular was older, in high school, he’d come in with his football team and they’d fill up all the booths in the back of the restaurant.
Does the pizza still taste just as good? Well, some things just taste better when you’re young, he says. It’s hard to be sure exactly. Nowadays, he explains to me, it’s all regularized, and they’ve got a system. The pizzas come out more circular and even. I look over the side of my booth, where I can see the cooks doing efficient work in the bright, open kitchen, swirling deep red sauce onto wide circles of dough, laying down thin slices of mozzarella, lifting pies out of the oven on long poles. When he was much younger, Frank says, the pizza would come, and it would be a square, a rectangle! He laughs. But he knows well what makes the pizza taste so good. “I think it’s because they burn it,” he says, talking about the charred, blackened crust that is the unique product of a coal-fired brick oven. It’s good for your teeth to chew on this stuff, he says. “I’m eighty-two years old, you know. I’ve got all my teeth.”
There’s no denying that a good crust is the backbone of Pepe’s pizza, but another “secret” is the “top quality ingredients,” mostly imported, that ensure that the pizza is made “just the way my grandfather used to do it.” Bimonte leads me into the vast kitchen, pointing out the 55-gallon drums of olive oil (it takes only about two months, he said, to go through four of those), and taking me into a room-sized refrigerator stocked with huge bags of unshucked clams, shelves holding circles upon circles of fresh dough, and a tower of bucket-sized tomato cans with labels that read Product of Italy. He tells me with pride that these are San Marzano tomatoes, known for their sweetness and acidity. In one part of the kitchen is a gleaming silver machine, a new dough-maker that replaced the old hand crank contraption. The three ovens, though, are the originals. We watch pizzas getting cooked inside, their surfaces bubbling, the crust rising, the bright interior of the oven wavy with heat.
The white clam pizza — golden, crusty, smoky, with a heady punch of garlic — is a masterpiece invented by Frank Pepe.
The story runs like this: If you had a vision of a pizza that you just had to have but wasn’t on the menu — a pizza that maybe had never existed anywhere in the world up to that point — Frank Pepe would make it for you. He would make it for you even if you knocked on his window in the dark, in the five or six hours out of the day when he wasn’t hard at work in the restaurant. Some guy with a very specific hankering came to him one day and wanted a clam pizza. And that’s what he got. Professor Paul Freedman, who teaches in Yale’s History Department and studies the history of European and American cuisine, mentioned this certain white clam pie when talking about the history of New Haven pizza. “They must have experimented very much,” he said. “It’s a clever use of a breadlike substance.”
According to Freedman, Italy in the early twentieth century had no “neo-Platonic form of pizza” — at least, not as there is today, in an age where Domino’s and Pizza Hut are hugely popular. He remembers family trips to Italy as a boy in the sixties, where they had this stuff that was “re-imported” from the U.S., “American-style” pizza that was usually a pale imitation of the pies served up in New York and New Haven. “In Naples in 1965,” he says, “they had this stuff that seemed fake.” Pizza, in the days when Frank Pepe still lived in Italy, was more of a local phenomenon, even a family thing. Go to a different house, eat a different pizza.
The uniqueness of Pepe’s is a tribute to that tradition of personal pizza styles. Bimonte shares a bit of history with me, recounting how his grandfather, after serving in the Italian army during World War I, arrived in Wooster Square and started making bread. Soon, he started adding stuff to the bread. “He would take a piece of bread dough and leftovers, bake it in the oven, and that was it. He went around saying, apizz, apizz, penny a slice.” The first New Haven pizza.
The mission to preserve and protect the uniqueness of Pepe’s flavor is central to the restaurant’s ongoing expansion. Ken Berry, the manager of the new Fairfield branch and the leader of the Frank Pepe Development Corporation (which opened in 2006), has absolute confidence in his new establishment and even a bit of the Pepe family faith. In our brief conversation, his responses sound as if he were answering to the ghost of Frank Pepe himself. If there are any doubts that a pizza place opened in this new century could even attempt to match the quality and authenticity of a pizzeria built in the heyday of Italian culture in New Haven in 1925, then the obsessive care taken in making the new facility should be enough to assuage them. “We replicated the old brick ovens brick for brick, customized,” he says. His team took measurements and “went in with cameras and mirrors… our goal is to replicate the Pepe’s experience.”
Another Pepe’s trademark is also firmly in place. Even though the smaller Fairfield establishment can’t receive as many customers as New Haven, Berry says, “We certainly have crowds and lines.” But the place is the solid mix of old-world authenticity and modern state-of-the-art hood that is the twenty-first century Pepe’s standard. One of the biggest changes of recent years is that a branch of the business is now in the hands of a non-family member. But Berry adheres to the specifications laid down by the family to the utmost. “This is the family’s project,” Berry says firmly, giving due reverence to the legacy of Frank Pepe and the historical significance of the restaurant.
I knew it was time for me to visit Pepe’s rival. In New Haven’s pizza universe, Pepe’s and Sally’s are the twin stars. As such, they are often paired together as must-try pizza for visitors to New Haven. Yet despite the inevitable culinary links and their physical proximity — Pepe’s is only a few blocks down on Wooster Street — the two pizzerias are worlds apart. On the restaurant’s sign — Sally’s Apizza (hearkening back to the days when Italian immigrants here pronounced the word “Ah-beets”) — the date of establishment, 1938, is small and barely visible. Sally’s was founded then by Salvatore Consiglio, a nephew of Frank Pepe.
The narrow restaurant, simply a hallway lined with booths and with a brick-oven at the back, is filled with a dim rosy glow from mismatched lights. The décor, a clutter of trophies and newspaper clippings, signed photos and memorabilia (the place was famously a favorite destination of Frank Sinatra’s), is less focused on the singularity of the business; some laudatory articles framed on the walls name Sally’s side by side with its foremost rival. The waiter, who recommends a Heineken with our olive pizza and mumbles something about a senior moment, disappears to the kitchen during the excruciating hour-long wait for food, and is replaced by a half-apologetic high school kid with a mop of dark hair. The wait breeds anxiety and mistrust, but when the pizza comes on its metal tray, topped with mozzarella and olives, all is forgiven. The Sally’s pie asserts itself not only as delicious but as deliciously unique. It has the New Haven flavor, but the crust here is blacker, thicker, grittier, and the pie a richer tomato flavor than Pepe’s.
Sally’s is desperately crowded, its oven traffic unbearably slow. But those in the know say that Sally’s wouldn’t expand. Many of its customers claim that a trip inside is like “stepping back in time,” and though it’s hard to define what era it brings us back to, there’s still something very hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop about the place. It is only after I leave the restaurant and walk back to Yale in the windy October night that I realize that the sweet old lady in a sweater and glasses who took my cash must have been Flo Consiglio, the widow of Salvatore Consiglio himself.
Pepe’s, though, highlights history and family lore with its pizza. The brightly lit restaurant, replete with an open kitchen where you can see pizzas in different stages of production and the pile of dark coal that fires the vast 12’ by 12’ oven, has preserved its distinctive green tin ceiling and layout, and, as Frank told me, looks just like it did when he came here years ago with his football team. Over each booth is a framed photograph from the early days of the establishment, black and white photos of cooks and waiters that Frank can remember from the forties and fifties. Idyllic, sunny paintings of Maiori, the small town in Italy where Frank Pepe was born, seem to say, this is it. This is the birthplace of the greatest pizza genius in the world.
I come in around 8:30 one night for my last pizza of the week. While I wait, I watch the families in their booths. One is a family of four, parents and two kids: the parents have ordered wine, and the young kids, impatient for their pizza to arrive, sip tall glasses of milk. One group has crammed five into a booth and is making its steady way into two large pizzas with sausage and onions. Although all kinds of groups come in to eat pizza at Pepe’s, there’s a family feeling about this place, its walls reading like a photo album. The customers keep coming, the love professed over and over not just for the product but for the people who make it. The bathroom is scrawled with just two pieces of benevolent graffitti: We Love Pizza and I LOVE FRANK.
Gary Bimonte and his family are faced with a difficult question: how to keep the business alive in an age of uncertain customers and ever-sprouting rival chains. Bimonte and the six cousins belong to the third generation of Pepe’s owners, but, as he says quietly, “there is no fourth generation.” The family isn’t dying out, but the kids want to have lives beyond pizza and beyond New Haven. Bimonte won’t be as lucky as my lunch date, Frank, who has been able to keep most of his children and grandchildren close to home, who planned on dropping off his leftover pizza with nearby relatives, and whose son even surprised him by taking over the flooring and carpeting business he had started in the sixties.
Without the security of a future generation, Bimonte believes that the best way for Pepe’s to live and grow is through expansion. The more people involved in faithfully preserving the original recipe, and the more fans that appreciate Pepe’s, the better off Pepe’s will be in the future. I asked Albert Grande, a pizza expert and author who calls Pepe’s Pizzeria “my favorite pizza place in the United States… really the whole world,” what he thought about expansion. Grande says that, though some people, like the owners of Sally’s, would say you can’t spread around a family pizza business, and some pizza makers wouldn’t sell any pizza that they had not personally made by hand, Pepe’s expansion will be good for the family and good for pizza lovers. The big question faced by everyone involved, he says, is “what can we do to increase the legacy?”
Frank Pepe died in 1969, when Gary Bimonte was still a boy. Bimonte is sad that he never knew his grandfather as an adult, but he has a few childhood memories of seeing him during his frequent visits to the restaurant. He was a very generous man and always had a nickel or something to give. He loved his family, but he was a big man in town too, a legend in his time both among restaurant owners and just among customers who knew him well.
Bimonte has learned most of the things he knows about his grandfather only in the past few years. He discovered archives stashed in the basements of his mother’s and aunt’s homes, recovering old film footage of his grandfather at work, finding photographs of Frank Pepe and his restaurant that nobody had seen in years. He got the old photos restored and hung them all over the restaurant. There’s Pepe with one of his friends, a tall Native American man who was a student at Yale in the sixties and later became a professor. There’s a member of the circus troupe — in a chef’s hat with a pizza tray — who frequented the restaurant: a midget whom Pepe sometimes put to work delivering pizzas to customers. There’s a group of cooks standing behind the counter, all smiling. Once every couple of months, Bimonte says he would pull out some of that old footage, now stored on a DVD, and look at his grandfather at work.
Above one booth, there is a picture of Frank Pepe that Bimonte says must date from the 1920s. Pepe is a young man here, dressed, as in the other pictures, in his apron and chef’s hat. He is facing the camera but looking a little bit into the distance, as if at something just on the horizon. Bimonte stands for a minute looking at his grandfather, a man who had just arrived from Italy and war, a man who still wore the look of a foreigner but who was beginning to lay down roots in New Haven, establishing a restaurant that would become the center of a neighborhood and a part of history. When Bimonte looks to the future of his restaurant and his family, he looks to this man.