Photos by Tom McGovern, courtesy of Pepe’s Pizza
Fresh-clam pizza defines Pepe’s for me. I can’t order anything else. Recently, Gary Biamonte, grandson of Frank Pepe, who opened the original Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven , came to the Fairfield Pepe’s and got me to try a few others. He showed the history of Pepe’s through its pies.
The story starts with the crust. That hand-formed, thin, charred crust is the foundation of the pizza and the business. Frank Pepe started as a baker. He arrived in New Haven in 1909, an illiterate boy from Maiori on the Italian Amalfi Coast . After working in a factory and returning to Italy to fight in World War I, he came back to New Haven and opened a bread bakery in what is now Frank Pepe’s The Spot, next door on Wooster Street. Distribution, the bane of many a small business, was a stumbling block. But if he started making “apizza” (pronounced “ah-beets” in his Neopolitan dialect)… the customer would come to him. The New Haven apizza legend was born.
Today, Pepe’s crust combines crisp, charred, chewy texture, and pleasing saltiness. Biamonte is secretive about how how they make it. He mentions “we get our own blend of flour.” He mentions fermentation, and the dough being a very wet. That’s all I could get out of him.
Many of us grew up thinking mozzarella is an integral part of pizza. But the first pizzas Pepe and his wife Filomena started making in 1925 didn’t have mozzarella on them. It was just tomato and grated parmesan. That pizza, known as The Original Tomato Pie is still on Pepe’s menu, and it’s eye-opening in its simplicity and balance of bright tomato sauce, flavored with garlic and oregano, and grated cheese and crust.
Pepe’s offers The Original with mozzarella, too. My dining companions said they just love mozzarella, and they dug into that. I found The Original in its original state to be utterly fresh and satisfying. I wasn’t tempted by the cheese.
On that much debated topic of cheese and fish, Pepe’s is on the cheese side. When Frank and Filomena started making pizzas, they offered just one variation. The Original with anchovies. These days, we recognize the umami properties of cheese and anchovies. The pizza, featuring Italian anchovies, remains on the menu.
Grated cheese is a base for the fresh clam pizza, and it plays its part without drawing attention to itself. I’ve always marveled at how plump, juicy and tender the clams have been every time I’ve eaten at Pepe’s in Fairfield and New Haven. Biamonte, who grew up shucking clams in Pepe’s kitchen, says “The key is, they’re really fresh.” Pepe’s, especially their pizzerias near the shore, move a lot of clams.
So, where did the fresh clam pizza come from? Back in the 40s and 50s, there was a guy with a cart selling clams near Pepe’s, so they put half shells on the menu. One day, someone got the idea to put them on the pizza. Since the mid-sixties, fresh clam pizzas have become more and more popular. I usually order the fresh clam pie with bacon, but, now that Biamonte has shown me how good it is without bacon, it will be easier to pass on that indulgence.
Fairfield was the first Pepe’s outside New Haven, and it was controversial when it opened 7 years ago. In New Haven, picketers carried signs, “Don’t Leave New Haven!” Meanwhile, in Fairfield, people lined up just like they did on Wooster Street. But the first reviews were bad. People said the pizza didn’t taste the same. They were right. The custom-built, 50-ton oven was new. “The bricks and mortar needed to dry out,” Biamonte said. It needed to cure. The family learned from the experience. As they opened new places, they applied the lesson. “Now, we fire the oven up four months ahead,” Biamonte said. In Fairfield, the oven’s firing up pizzas for a steady line of customers.
Frank Pepe’s two daughters Elizabeth and Serafina inherited and “continued to run it like Pop did.” Today, their children run the business, and despite expanding to Danbury, Manchester, West Hartford, Mohegan Sun, and in Yonkers, N.J., their business has remained focused. Pizza, salad, soda, beer and wine. (We always get a pitcher of Peroni, served with which the tall, chilled Peroni glasses that fit so well in the hand.)
While sticking with the classics, Pepe’s has adapted to contemporary tastes. A white pie of spinach, mushroom and gorgonzola is a loaded, cheesy pie. The vegetables are fresh. Back in the day, “Pop” used fresh mushrooms. Then there were decades of canned. Today, Pepe’s uses fresh mushrooms. In summer (July 1-Labor Day), the fresh-tomato pie with basil is “off-the-charts” popular.
Next time, I’m still ordering the fresh clam pie. But that’s not all. Let’s make some room here. Move the pitcher of beer. Here comes The Original Tomato Pie and the Margherita with fresh mozzarella and basil.
(A version of this article originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.)