I love pizza and have been blessed to grow up in a state with a pretty distinct style of pizza. Their thin, oblong crust (which is a bit drier and thicker than the more well known New York style pizza), characteristic charring and chewy texture has been termed “New Haven Style”. And a little known fact is that this style of pizza originated at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (or Frank Pepe’s as I call it).
I grew up loving this style of pizza and whenever my family and I headed down to New Haven, a stop at Frank Pepe’s to grab a bite and a slice was always on the itinerary. I remember “fighting” with the pie’s chewy crust and watching in amazement at the ease at which the employee’s expertly slid each pie into the 2000 degree coal-stoked oven.
Needless to say – I was quite pleased (ecstatic even) when I found out that a location had opened up in the Elmwood section of West Hartford and my husband and I had been graciously invited to meet and dine with Frank Pepe’s grandson, Gary Bimonte.
However – New Haven style pizza in West Hartford??? Would it hold up to and taste like the pizza I remember getting at their Original New Haven location?? I was intrigued to find out.
Immediately after setting foot into the West Hartford location the first thing one notices is the kitchen, where patrons can watch the employees expertly prepare and cook everything from the signature simple Tomato Pie (oregano, crushed tomato sauce with a little bit of grated pecorino Romano cheese to some of the more “fancy” varieties (such as the mushroom, gorgonzola, and spinach pie)
Sitting down with a glass of Foxon Park Soda (served at Pepe’s since 1925), I had the pleasure of sharing a table with Gary Bimonte, Linda Kavanagh, Aaron Oliver, and my husband. In this intimate setting (and while waiting for pie’s being prepared before our eyes), Gary told of the fascinating history of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana.
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
In a nutshell, Frank Pepe immigrated from the Almafi Coast in 1925 but soon returned to Italy to fight in WWI. He returned to New Haven in 1920 along with his new bride Filomena and began working for a local macaroni manufacturer, a local bakery, and then being a hard and entrepreneurial worker opened up Frank Pepe’s the Spot (163 Wooster Street). This venture proved a turning point, and although he started selling his pies to workers in the community, the soon decided to abandon the delivery service and focus on having customers come to them. The original menu contained two pizza choices – The Original Tomato Pie and The Original Tomato Pie with anchovies (which is still a topping on today’s menu).
Although the business expanded and moved to its current location (157 Wooster Street), Frank lived above the pizzeria handling the day to day operations with his wife and expanding family. It was at the current location that Pepe’s signature White Clam Pizza (with so many fresh clams, it was impossible to take a bite without one) was developed as well as the use of coal as the primary heating element for the pies was introduced as Coke (the by product of coal) became unavailable.
To this day Gary and his family continue to use the KISS (keep it simple stupid) method to decorate (i.e. put on the toppings) and bake their pie’s.
While we talked I could not help but notice that the restaurant’s 14’x14′ oven (a replica to the one in the New Haven location) never took a break, but because the oven gets so hot (as much as 2000 degrees) patrons never had to wait long for one of the many menu options available.
Fun fact 1 – the coal is added on the right side of the oven and there is a damper on the left. Both of which create a natural convection oven.
While chatting and laughing, we started with the Pepe’s Salad (greens, grape tomatoes, cucumber, red cabbage, greek olives) dressed with a light balsamic dressing. This is a great, great starter that can be transformed into a main dish by adding some freshly oven roasted chicken, just in case you are not feeling the pizza vibe that day.
Enjoying my Diet White Birch Beer Foxon Park Soda (although they have a wide array of fountain soda, wine, and beer available), it was time for the main event – PIZZA!!
No visit to Frank Pepe’s would be complete without trying Frank Pepe’s Original Tomato Pie and White Clam Pie.
Fun Fact 2 – As a teenager, Gary Bimonte worked at Frank Pepe’s and was a master shucker – making sure the White Clam Pizza was “fully decorated”.
We also were treated to the Spinach, Mushroom & Gorgonzola Pie – this was a decadent pie but with the characteristic New Haven Style Crust – it did not feel heavy and was just delicious.
Try as hard as we might – our group was only able to make a dent in the pies presented to us. Luckily – we were able to box up and take home the left overs – which reheated perfectly even after sitting for several days in my refrigerator.
Fun Fact 3 – If you decide to order take out (and possible try some of there other pies) – ask that your pie not be sliced. It travels better and can be easily sliced in the comfort of your home.
And just when I thought we were done and ready pack up and leave, Mark and I got a special treat and actually was able to go into the kitchen and see where the magic happens. Let me tell you – those ovens are hot, hot hot! After my mini tour, I can see why the pizza paddle has such a long handle.
The hospitality and food were delicious and I left knowing both a little bit more about the history of this restaurant AND the best part – I now know that I can go to the West Hartford location to get an almost exact replica of the New Haven style “fix” I grew up loving as a child.
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
1148 New Britain Avenue
West Hartford, CT 06110
Open Every Day – 11:00AM until 10:00PM
Disclaimer: My husband, Mark, and I were asked to attend this event hosted by MaxEx PR and Frank Pepe Pizzeria in exchange for writing a review on the blog. Although this post is sponsored, the opinions are completely my own, based on my experience.