According to the Yale Daily News, the legendary Pepe's Pizza, in New Haven, Connecticut, is contemplating opening more branches in college towns across the country. But I wonder: Is it possible to clone high-quality, family-owned and operated pizzerias across state lines?
Pepe's, a Slice favorite beloved by just about everyone, including Michael Stern of Roadfood, and me. Pepe's, which I named one of pizzadom's "keepers of the flame" in my book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, had previously opened a branch in Fairfield, Connecticut, in 2005 and another in Mansfield, Connecticut, last month. I tried to go to the Fairfield branch but was repelled by the long line.
College town expansion sounds like a sound business strategy. College kids love pizza (actually, who doesn't), ditto for professors living on academic salaries, and Pepe's would be a cost-effective way for parents visiting their kids to take them out for some non-dorm food.
But is the pizza going to be any good? Is it going to do justice to Frank Pepe's name and legacy as one of the true pizza giants in this country? Can you make a good coal-fired oven tomato pie beyond the Connecticut state line? I have my doubts.
High-quality burger chains? Not really a problem. In-N-Out is beloved by burger afficionados. Want a pretty damn fine burrito anywhere in the country? You can get it at Chipotle Grill. There's a Chipotle Grill near the Slice/Serious Eats office that I eat in once a week (I get a salad with half barbacoa, half pork, back beans, two kinds of salsa, no sour cream, and just a sprinkling of cheese), and it's mighty tasty.
Turning out good burgers and fine burritos and tacos in multiple locations is one thing, but cloning Pepe's is another. Why? Because pizza is hard. Famous chefs have told me, "Cooking is easy. Pizza is hard." Turning out great pizza day in and day out, when changes in temperature and humidity force the pizzaiolo to make many split-second decisions, is a challenge to even the best pizza-makers like Chris Bianco of Phoenix's Pizzeria Bianco and Anthony Mangieri of New York's Una Pizza Napoletana.
Bianco once told me, "I could teach a monkey to make one great pizza." At a high-volume pizzeria like Pepe's, the pie men and women are going to be making hundreds of pies a day, and I just wonder if they're going to be up to snuff. Making great pizza, consistently, every day for years takes passion, dedication, and know-how, and usually requires an obsessive owner to be there every day presiding over the pies and getting his or her hands in the dough.
Maybe I'm wrong. If the Fairfield and Mansfield Pepe's are turning out consistently good piesand I would welcome any Slice correspondent's reportmaybe this foray by Frank Pepe's heirs, in concert with a Yale alumnus turned financier, will work. It would be one small step for pizzakind.