New Haven Pizza, Part One: Frank Pepe's

Dynamic Duo: Frank Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana and Sally's Apizza were the two stops Slice made during the Pizza Club road trip to New Haven, Conn., on Saturday. Plenty of pizza was ordered from both venerable establishments. Above left is a large mozzarella pie (background) and a large white-clam pie (foreground) from Pepe's; above right is a large mozzarella pie from Sally's. Both pizzerias are so popular that lines form down the block, as can be seen below (Pepe's left, Sally's right).

Three cars. Seventy-nine point nine miles. Ten people. Two pizzerias. Nine pies. One hundred and twenty-some dollars. That's the Slice New Haven trip by the numbers.

We left Greenpoint, Brooklyn, at 12:30 p.m. Saturday and arrived at Wooster Street, home to New Haven's famous Frank Pepe's and Sally's Apizza, around 3 p.m. We were there to try New Haven–style pie, which only a few among us had had before. We'd heard that the pizza in this seaside Connecticut town was as good as, if not better than, New York's best and we wanted to try for ourselves. Our plan was to get hit Frank Pepe's around 2 p.m., eat some pie, take some photos, talk to some folks, and then get out and get in line at Sally's Apizza by 4:30 p.m. for the joint's 5 p.m. opening. (A kind reader had tipped us that we needed to be outside Sally's by that time to get in for the first seating of the day.)

We arrived a little later than planned and got on line at Pepe's around 3:15 p.m. After a 15-minute wait, we were in. The short wait gave Seltzerboy and I a chance to talk to filmmakers Michael Dorian and Joe dos Santos (left, from left) of Cat Price Productions. The pair were shooting video for a documentary about pizza and were in New Haven killing two birds with one stone—documenting Pepe's and talking to Slice editors. [The rest of the epic journey to Pepe's, after the jump.]

The prospect of appearing on the silver screen was appealing, but we were hungry, and our table was ready. We crammed eight people (two would show up about 15 minutes later and take a second table) into a long booth and were greeted by Donna (right), our superfriendly waitress. Donna welcomed us to Pepe's and was more patient with us than we probably deserved, what with us getting up, taking photos, wandering around to look at the enormous kitchen and gigantic oven, and asking tons of questions. Her down-to-earth charm was the first of many differences between Pepe's and Sallys, but more on that later. We were relieved to see her remove the "No Clam Pies Available Today" sign from the door soon after we sat down. This is New Haven, afterall; clam pies are said to have been invented here, and we had to sample one at each place.

We ordered three large pizzas. One white (no sauce) clam pie, one with mushrooms, and one with mozzarella. Now in New York, we'd call that a "plain" pie. But New Haven ain't New York, and when we ordered a "plain" pie, Donna asked us, "What do you mean by 'plain'? 'Plain' here is just red sauce with a sprinkling of Parmesan, flavored with garlic and oregano." Hence we ordered "one with mozzarella." But the New Haven–style plain pie sounded good too, so we ordered a small one (left foreground; in the background, Seltzerboy holds a mozzarella slice, crust-side up to show the camera the tasty bits of charring from the coal-fired oven).

One of the main differences between New Haven and New York pizza is the crust. While still a thin crust, it's a little thicker and doughier than New York–style. Second is the sauce-and-cheese balance; New Haven pie seems to run a little heavier on the sauce. At Pepe's, this wasn't a bad thing, as the pizzeria's mixture had an exceptionally fresh tangy tomatoey taste. Nor was it a problem at Sally's, but the sauce didn't seem as, well, peppy. Third is that both New Haven places seemed to leave the pies in long enough that the oil separated from the cheese, rose to the top of the pie, and almost seemed to "fry" the mozzarella, giving it a mottled golden-brown color. These factors were true of both Pepe's and Sally's and are visible in the pie shown at right, which is from Sally's.

But, back to Pepe's. The pies arrived about 20 minutes after ordering. We found out that "large" was an understatement. They were huge, oblong, roughly 20-inch-diameter pies cut into numerous irregularly sized slices (see photos at top for an idea). The crust among all the large pies was pretty consistent: crisp, chewy, and light with a golden-brown bottom with evidence of the tell-tale coal-oven char here and there. It was doughy almost like bread and had a nice salty taste that complemented the tangy fresh tomato sauce. While consistent among pies, the crust thickness varied from superthin to puffy thick on each pie, often becoming puffiest at the end crust, resulting in "too much empty real estate for my taste," as Amanda G. noted. (See the photo at left, just above; the slice on the left illustrates the puffy lost-real-estate concept.) Even in these spots, though, the worst that happens is that you end up eating what "tastes like really good Cosi bread," as pizza-clubber Joe D. put it.

With such a large group, opinion was all over the place, but the mushroom pie was the unanimous last-place finisher. The mushrooms were rubbery and looked like they might have been the canned variety. Though not everyone's favorite, the top pie was the white clam. With fresh whole clams (below left) cooked perfectly, it was more about what the clams weren't—they weren't rubbery or too "clammy" tasting and didn't leave a bad aftertaste as low-quality clams often do.

Classic Fare: Must-have dishes at Pepe's are the white-clam pie (above left) and the mozzarella pie (above right). A portrait of Frank Pepe (below right) hangs on a wall at his restaurant.

Friend of Slice Tien Mao inquired as to the origins of the clam pie and was told that Frank Pepe himself came up with the idea as a lark. The local fishermen in New Haven always had bushels of clams on hand, and Mr. Pepe had the idea of putting them on pizza. After baking one up, he was surprised it worked and hence the clam pie was born. By the time we left Pepe's (around 4:15 p.m.), we were told that Pepe's had gone through six bushels of clams since opening at 11:30 a.m. I had to look up how big a bushel was, and it's 35.239 liters. Six bushels equals roughly 223 quarts, or about 56 gallons (give or take some for dry-weight/liquid-measure discrepancies).

Want another amazing number? How about 500 pies a day? That's roughly how many we were told came out of Pepe's enormous oven. On a Saturday, that's 1.33 pies every minute. And the oven is more than capable of handling this volume. Perhaps one of the most striking things about Pepe's is its gargantuan oven with gigantic prep area and oarlike pizza peels to match.

Carrying Coal to New Haven: The beast above is the oven at Pepe's. That's not a wall with an oven built in. That whole thing is the oven. One worker is using what appeared to be a vacuum cleaner to sweep out dusting flour while another sweeps up what looked like ashes. OK, now see the photo below right? See that wooden stick running parallel with the counter? That's the handle of a pizza peel. That handle is the depth of the oven. Did I not say the oven was big?

The oven floored us all. The pizza peels were long. We're talking looooooong. So long that the board end of the paddle rested on a special shelf bulit into the oven wall and the handle then extended upward at a 45-degree angle and rested on a hook built into the ceiling (see Joe Schumacher's post, fifth photo, for reference). At one point, the pizzaiolo at the oven opened the coal door (see Tien's sixth photo) and you could feel the heat from about 25 feet away.

This oven, however, is not the original. Don't get me wrong. It's as old as it looks—circa 1936—but the original oven, and the original Pepe's, is just around the corner. Called "The Spot," this original location, established in 1925, was so popular that Pepe's had to expand in 1936 to the building we've documented here. The original building's coal-fired oven dates to the 1880s.

After eating, Slice met Gary Bimonte, Mr. Pepe's grandson and a co-owner and manager of the place. Mr. Bimonte, who was as welcoming as his wait staff, related bits of Pepe's history, noting that the place has served presidents Reagan and Clinton (Bill really likes the pizza, huh?) and that it was once slated to host Hillary but the Secret Service nixed it ("Too many rooftops around here," Mr. Bimonte said, "We ended up catering that one off-site").

All total, we dropped $100 at Pepe's—including tip—for the four pies, two pitchers of beers, and one bottle of diet birch beer. We estimate that Greg and Mike at the second table spent about $16. That $12.50 per person bought so much food that we were stuffed long before we even made it to Sally's Apizza, just down the street. What about Sally's, you ask? More to come later today ...

For now, click through to the jump to see photo outtakes from the day.

Seven of the 10 pizza club participants (left). How did we get 10 people for the New Haven trip and only, like, 7 for the John's of Bleecker outing, which was totally convenient? Oh well. At least the labor involved guaranteed a turnout of true pizza enthusiasts who were eager to order from the not-so-crowded menu (right) at Pepe's.

OK. That's it for now. Check back as the day goes on. I'll add more photos as I'm able to. And watch for the second installment of our New Haven trip, our visit to Sally's. More to come!


Tien Mao on the trip to New Haven
Joe Schumacher on the trip
Pizza Therapy on Frank Pepe's