Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (aka Pepe’s): Coal-Fired Legend

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Pizza New Haven

Wooster Street in New Haven is bookended by two of the most revered pizzerias in the nation: Sally’s Apizza and Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana. Each place has its adherents. Sally’s Apizza was scintillating on a visit in December 2006. Pepe’s was similarly excellent, but that was 10 years ago. A lot can change in 10 years.

Frank Pepe (pictured) worked as a locksmith and bread baker in New Haven before he and wife Filomena began selling fresh tomato pies with grated cheese in 1925.

Pepe’s hosts a classic coal-fired pizza oven, lined with well-worn white tiles. The wood floors leading up to the oven also have seen plenty of action.

All four of us were excited about the prospect of the Summer Special (Medium, $16.40), a white pizza sporting fresh tomato chunks, basil, garlic and mozzarella. This was easily the best pizza of the night, with a supple crust that was blackened on the bottom, but not burnt in the least. The toppings were absolutely of the moment, and the cheese was nice and browned. Great pizza.

We topped our Tomato Pie with Mozzarella (Medium, $11.60) with half sausage and half mushroom. The sauce could have used a little more kick, but it was still certainly several ticks above respectable. The coarse sausage slices were luscious, and the mushrooms developed a terrific roasted quality in the oven. Unfortunately, the majority of this pie was burnt, which resulted in disappointment.

Clam pizza (Small, $12.10) is a peculiar New England specialty, a pizza with no cheese or sauce. Instead, it boasts clams, fresh garlic, olive oil and oregano. When I asked our waitress what kind of clams were on the pizza, she said, “I don’t know, but I know they shuck them fresh every day.” The pizzaiolo had a heavy hand with the oil, but this pie had a pleasantly chewy consistency. The clams were briny, and not very chewy, which I enjoyed, and the chopped garlic added extra potency.

Pepe’s still serves very good pizza, but it wasn’t the revelation that it was 10 years ago. The tomato pie and clam pizza had some faults. Of course I would still drive over my grandmother (and yours) to have a pizza parlor of this caliber in L.A., but it’s not even the best pizza place on Wooster Street.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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