1925 was a big year from the sounds of it. The first motel in America was opened, The Great Gatsby was published and Frank Pepe invented New Haven-style thin crust pizza. As the story goes, the pizza was originally fired over coke, which is a byproduct of coal used extensively until the late 1960’s when it became unavailable. Ever since that time, Pepe’s people have been cooking the pizza in an oven, over coals with long pizza boards to remove one pizza at a time from the fire.
Ever since I started working at my current employer, a handful of folks have been telling me that I have to get up there and try Connecticut’s most raved about pie. After being cautioned frequently regarding the expected wait and being familiar myself with the ungodly traffic that one must suffer through to drive north on I-95 from Stamford, I’ve put this particular journey off. The thinking was, this pizza has been around since 1925 – what’s the rush in getting up there? That said, it was amazing to me how many people that I have encountered when travelling or drinking at a Financial Information Networking Event who would ask me if I have ever had this pizza. I was starting to worry that if I didn’t eventually give this a try, then Governor Ed Lamont was going to knock on my door and take away my residency personally.
A few things happened at the same time that finally made me bite the bullet and visit. The most motivating perhaps being that it’s recently become a pretty serious discussion that I may move out of Connecticut in the mid to near term future. The second thing being that I was lucky enough to receive a generous Pizza Gift Card for my three year dating anniversary. On an evening in May, after waiting for traffic to dissipate as much as anyone could expect on a Friday, we hopped in the car for our hour plus journey for CT’s crown jewel pizza.
Now I’ve never been to Wooster street, so it was super cool to see “New Haven’s Little Italy” and I would be tempted to try any restaurant on that block. Arrival time was around 9:15 PM and I was surprised to find there was still a bit of a wait. We were the first people in the waiting room, but had very little instruction to how this all worked. As we stood there waiting, many people continued to file in. The restaurant closed at 10, so I was surprised to see that it was still filling up at that time of night. When they call the tables, it’s based on the honor system without any line to be formed in the space so I could imagine that could be unpleasant with a pushy enough crowd.
The interior of the restaurant really makes for a cool experience. The décor is old school with wooden panels, lamps from another era and no frill booths with numbers above them to let the staff know exactly where to bring what. The service we experienced was nice, but we did see one woman yelling at anyone who came in beyond the waiting room. If we hadn’t bumped into staff walking into the first door, we would have committed the same offense looking for a hostess. It’s obvious that people want this pizza so badly, that the staff can be however they want and the people will still pour in.
Our order was simple. From their website, any Yelp review, my coworkers, etc it was obvious we’d have to try the white clam pizza. This pie is made with fresh shucked clams, garlic, olive oil and grated cheese on a “charcoal colored crust.” Normally, the BF and I would not be ordering any clams but figuring that we may never be back at the original Frank Pepe’s, we went ahead and ordered this as a small pie. To round out our order, we got a medium original tomato pie with mozzarella to be sure we could fill our starving bellies so late at night.
The restaurant has beer and wine, but I stuck with a diet Coke while my dining companion tried the Foxon Park Soda, which was marketed as being served at the restaurant since the beginning. The verdict on the specialty soda was that it tasted like a sweeter version of Coke. The bottle label design was cool and the notion of trying something new, even cooler.
We didn’t have to wait long after placing our order for our pies to arrive. First the plain cheese came out and I was impressed at how the pizza was cut into so many small slices. Realistically, this medium pie for $14.50 would have been enough for us both to have a full dinner. As we dug in, we both burned the roof of our mouths so badly on the hot oil, that I am writing this blog review 3 days later and it’s still hurting. The website explains that these pizzas are cooked one at a time to ensure that they reach the high heat quickly without compromising it at a lower temperature as one would if they placed too many pies in the oven at once.
The pizza was interesting. It should be mentioned that my boyfriend thought it was really good; perhaps not the best pie or worth all of the hassle but on the notably superior side. Full disclaimer, their sauce hit the same flavor note in my memory of a time I had pizza at a Disney World food court and spent 2 days puking my brains out, missing out on the parks. Try as I might, I couldn’t really get far past that to enjoy it extensively.
I truly enjoyed how much cheese they put on the pizza and the crust did taste like coal, which is also good. We live right outside of a Fortina and their pizza is so much more accessible and tastier that I wasn’t in anyway blown away by this pizza. That said, the experience of sitting in a place with that much history and demand was very cool. Also, it was astounding how much takeout business they were doing during our time inside. If there isn’t already, business school students should do case studies on Frank Pepe’s success.
After having a few plain slices, our white clam pizza came out and it was a welcome break from the original pie. What first surprised me was that there wasn’t really any cream sauce and it was more like a garlic bread with large hunks of clams. I was really encouraged by seeing a sign that explained that if they’re out of fresh clams, you can’t get the pie. A lot of places use canned clams and that’s about as disgusting as it sounds. The pie was lighter than I expected and it helped a lot to take a bite of one pie and then the other. Without the pungent tomato sauce, you could taste the grated cheese covered crust of this pie much more clearly.
Overall, this won’t replace my go-to pizza spot but it was super cool to see a place so notably a part of Connecticut’s Foodie history. Frank Pepe’s has several other locations and if I ever walked by one without a line, I might go in and try pepperoni pizza or something of a similar nature.
For now, when everyone asks me if I live in Connecticut and then if I’ve been to Frank Pepe’s, I can finally feel like a resident around here.
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
157 Wooster St, New Haven, CT 06511