I am a New Yorker. Who grew up in Philadelphia. If you are some other place and say you have the best pizza in America, well, them’s fighting’ words.
So there I was in New Haven, CT. The Elm City. Home of Yale University. Birthplace of the lollipop. First planned city in the USA–who knew? It’s something of a “big little town”: you have all of the perks of a big city, but on a much smaller, much more condensed scale. It’s an arboreal, yet urban, getaway that is totally walkable.
Say you are out of town and inevitably you get the local spin on hometown pride. But at the bar at Elm City Social, while taking pics of the Yale campus’s architectureporn, amid the farm-fresh goodness of the Wooster Square’s Farmer’s Market, the hometown pride crossed a line:
“We have the best pizza in America!”
Oh, do you?
At the end of the 19th Century, Italians poured into New Haven by the shipload. New York and Philly are usually considered the most famous of end-points for immigration from the Old Country, but by 1930, New Haven would have 27,000 Italians in a total population of 162,655. That’s a lot of pasta.
One of those emigres was Frank Pepe. From the Amalfi town of Maiori (south of Naples), he set foot on American soil at age 16 in 1909, and by 1925 had founded Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven’s burgeoning Little Italy on Wooster Street. A family tradition, and a New Haven one, was born. And boy, does it taste good.
Today, “Pepe’s” occupies two buildings, including the original location, and the family, in the form of the grandkids, all have a hand in running what is local icon and serious point of hometown pride. Sticking with Pepe’s southern Italian roots, the pizzeria still uses the dialectal “apizza,” pronounced “ah-beets,” for the pies they make.
And I gotta say, that was the best damn “ah-beets” I ever had. I know when I am in the wrong and when to open wide for some humble pie, particularly if it is in the form of Frank Pepe’s Original Tomato Pie. All the familiars are there: cheese, tomato sauce, olive oil, pizza bread, and a flurry of toppings. But, presto-chango, Pepe’s progeny work wonders with them all. What I tasted is a lot tarter, with more of a tomato-y tang, than the pizza I usually have in New York, and a bit thinner, but the flavor explodes right across the palate. This is a pizza made with tender loving care. No wonder The Daily Meal awarded the place “Best Pizza in America.”
Delightfully, Pepe’s resists the current idea that food has to be a luxury item; the pizzeria remains close to its downmarket, affordable, unpretentious roots. Nothing fancy here. But like any cuisine, the main dish, should have the proper accoutrements. No wine lists here; Foxon Park Birch Beer soda and Genesee Beer is as upscale as it gets, and it’s all you need. Preferably by the pitcher.
Ancient Italian Secret?
Of course they aren’t going to clue me in on any of the pizzeria’s secrets. But in touring the kitchen (I know people), I was surprised at how simple the secret must be. Tomatoes here, olive oil there, dough over there; although the dough, I found, did have a ritual to it in the form of proofing boxes. These are wide, flat, square, wooden boxes especially for the dough to rise properly. Pepe’s is one of the only pizzerias in the world still using this tradition.
And when they say coal-fired, they mean it. Bags and bags and bags of anthracite. Inside, outside. Spilling out of the ovens. I had never seen coal burn before; when one of the workers opened the furnace (the same one Frank Pepe used!), it looked like a mound of red-hot rocks. Talk about a heat wave. Things must cook in a flash.
Put it all together and bang! A work of art worth every accolade. New York and Philly, New Haven is your pizza (sorry, apizza) wake up call. And it pains me to say that.