It was just before 2 p.m. when I arrived at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana on Wooster Street two Saturdays ago to meet with its owner Gary Bimonte, grandson of Frank Pepe. An overflow of people queued up alongside the front of the building, while others packed inside of the restaurant’s narrow foyer — all waiting to snag a coveted seat at the nearly 100-year-old restaurant.
“If there is one reason to visit New Haven — if there’s one reason to visit Connecticut — it’s to visit Sally’s, Pepe’s and [Modern Apizza],” said Gorman Bechard, New Haven pizza fanatic and director of the feature-length documentary “Pizza, A Love Story,” which chronicles the history of what he calls “the holy trinity” of pizza.
According to Bechard, The Daily Meal has ranked Pepe’s as the No. 1 pizzeria in the country several times.
Pepe’s of New Haven is not just famous. As the fifth-oldest continuously operating pizzeria in the country, it also occupies an important place in the history of pizza in America.
Since the restaurant’s founding in 1925, Pepe’s has operated as a family-owned business, passed down from Pepe to his children to his grandchildren.
But Bimonte’s generation will be the last of the Pepe’s to run the century-old family business. Members of the fourth generation — comprised of Pepe’s great-grandchildren — have little interest in continuing the family business, instead wishing to pursue their own interests.
“Having multiple generations of one family continue a business for nearly 100 years at this point … is a supreme challenge,” said Colin M. Caplan, author of the 2018 book “Pizza in New Haven.”
Without a clear family heir to the institution that is Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, the question remains: Who will carry on Frank Pepe’s legacy?
At 60 years old, Bimonte, the youngest of Pepe’s grandchildren, is the face of the family business. Walking past the brick oven and prep kitchen of the main location, we stopped in the very back of the restaurant by an employee grating mozzarella. It was still a bit quieter here, compared to the bustling main dining room.
Bimonte recounted the story of his grandfather’s journey to New Haven in broad swaths. Frank Pepe first came to America with his brother in 1909 as teenager, arriving with only a sixth-grade education and unable to read or write English. After they landed in Ellis Island, they moved to New Haven, and Pepe got a job at a macaroni factory and at Sargent’s making locks. When World War I broke out, Pepe had to return to Italy to fight in the Italian army, and afterward, he married Filomena Pepe. Pepe returned to New Haven after the war ended.
Bimonte explained his grandfather’s beginnings making pies at a local bakery in the 1920s. “From what I understand, he was baking bread and he started to flatten out his bread dough, and he just put sauce on it and started selling it,” he said. “There was a lot of industry in the area, and he would sell his pizzas there.”
According to Caplan, Pepe would deliver pizzas to factory workers at the hundreds of factories in New Haven at the time.
“There were companies making all sorts of parts, guns, ammunition boxes … bathtubs, pianos, almost anything you can think of, and that was a place where hungry factory workers would be waiting for food, and pizza was the option,” Caplan said. “Our city had the most Italians per capita of any city in America [at the time]. So he had a lot of people waiting and ready to eat the food that they remembered from home.”
However, Bimonte ultimately credits his grandmother, Filomena, with getting the business off of the ground. It was Filomena’s idea to introduce seating at the bakery, and, as Bimonte said, “have them come to us.”
If Frank had the talent for baking and salesmanship, Filomena had the business acumen to launch and grow their restaurant in New Haven. Because of Filomena’s ability to read and write, she assumed the role of their business manager and helped their enterprise succeed financially.
In his chapter on Frank Pepe in “Pizza in New Haven,” Caplan cites Filomena as one of the primary reasons for Pepe’s success: “New Haven’s stake at being one of the reigning pizza cities in the country could be attributed to the persistence and foresight of Frank Pepe’s wife.”
The Americanization of Pizza
When Pepe first started selling his pies, pizza was still a southern Italian ethnic food. It was specific to one region of Italy and was more of a family meal, Caplan explained.
“Having such a large pizzeria [like Pepe’s] and offering it to the public in such a way, it opened the doors to other Americans to come, and just about every ethnic group felt invited, felt part of it, and took dates there … had a meal and had a beer, and probably tried pizza for the first time in their lives, at Pepe’s,” he continued.
According to my “History of Food and Cuisine” professor, Paul Freedman, the earliest adopters of immigrant cuisines like Pepe’s were often bohemians — “the ancestors of yuppies of the 1980s and 90s and of hipsters of our era.”
In 1936, the expansion of Pepe’s to its current location at 157 Wooster St. was a milestone for pizza as a food item. At the time, the new location, which could seat nearly 150 guests, was considered to be the largest pizzeria in the country. The 14-by-14-foot oven, still in use at the New Haven location to this day, was also considered to be one of the largest in the world for making pizza.
According to Caplan, Pepe’s was one of the first pizzerias to begin advertising in the Yale Daily News specifically to Yale students. The new location managed to accommodate this growing consumer base.
“They use the Yale Daily News starting around 1937 … and it’s one of the first examples in the country of college students being offered pizza. So I have an entire chapter on that because who could think of college life without eating pizza today, and it might have actually started at Yale,” Caplan said. “How’s that for some Elis’ history right there?”
Rapid Growth on the East Coast
In the ’90s, Bimonte brought in Ken Berry, an outside consultant who now is the CEO of Frank Pepe’s Development Company. Berry identified and attempted to fix the issues faced by the business, helping to “take some of the burden off” of Bimonte from day-to-day hassles.
And it was another consultant who advised Bimonte to expand the Frank Pepe pizzeria to more locations. Since 2006, Pepe’s has set up shop in 10 towns and small cities across the East Coast: seven locations in Connecticut, and three more in Yonkers, New York, Warwick, Rhode Island, and Newton, Massachusetts.
Pepe’s 11th location is now in the process of being built in Burlington, Massachusetts, and Pepe’s is eyeing locations in the Washington, D.C, metro area. Their consultant argued that their viable product could be reproduced elsewhere.
Bimonte certainly believes that Pepe’s expansion under the Frank Pepe Development Company has benefited their pizza in tangible ways.
“We still use the highest quality ingredients and a lot of our ingredients are cost-prohibitive to smaller pizzerias. Now we’re so large we have the buying power,” he told me.
Bimonte walked me through Pepe’s storeroom, pointing out ingredients one by one. The meats are local from Connecticut, but everything else they use to bake their pizzas is private label — from the flour milled to their specifications to the olive oil from Italy.
Bimonte said that the combination of their specially sourced ingredients and their large coal-fired brick oven helps explain why Pepe’s pizza is so good.
“My family is still adhering to my grandfather’s exact recipes. We haven’t changed a thing.”
Still, others are less certain of the benefits of expansion. I asked Caplan about what the continued expansion might mean for customers.
“It means that we better pray,” he said. “We better pray that there’s going to be somebody else taking it over, keeping quality up.”
Freedman was even less optimistic on the prospect of quality remaining the same should someone else buy the company: “It’s over,” he said.
Freedman was skeptical of even the idea of local expansion.
“In my opinion, you can’t maintain uniqueness if something’s not unique.”
Frank Pepe’s Legacy
When I asked Bimonte what the greatest challenge has been in his more than 40 years at Pepe’s, without any hesitation he said “family.”
“There was a lot of infighting,” he said. “You know, I have three sisters, I have three cousins — and it’s really difficult to get everyone on the same page.” He said that he felt he should not really say much more on the disagreements.
“It’s a large Italian family. … I mean, do you have brothers and sisters? Do you get along with them all the time?”
But the fourth generation of the Pepe family will not inherit the nearly 100-year-old family business. Bimonte, who is a member of the third generation, does not have children of his own, and his sisters’ children do not seem interested in carrying on the family business.
“They really don’t want anything to with the business,” Bimonte said.
At the same time, Pepe’s rapid expansion has helped to address the issues of continuity within the family business, according to Bimonte.
“We wanted to keep our grandfather’s legacy alive. … This is why we did this expansion. I’m the youngest here at 60. When we’re all gone, our grandfather’s legacy will live on,” Bimonte said.
From the family’s perspective, Pepe’s growth and change make perfect sense for the financial health of the company.
According to Caplan, it takes faith, organization and a good product to keep a family company running through generations. But it also requires that people at times chose their family over their own dreams “to be the main impetus behind their career.” Caplan said that it was a wise choice for the parents of Pepe’s great-grandchildren to give their kids the option of doing something else, rather than being forced into the family business.
“It’s a bigger picture than just pizza, just a business and just the family. …Thinking about a business like this is it’s not just a family. It’s not just a business. It becomes a part of the community,” Caplan said. “Pepe’s is so interconnected to people’s families and important times [in their lives] … that let’s just say when they have a birthday, when they have an anniversary, they always come back to Pepe’s.”
Brandon Liu | email@example.com .