For as long as I can remember, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana was one of those places that hovered in my imagination, a pizza icon that I knew I would visit, no questions asked, the first time I ventured anywhere near New Haven, Connecticut. .Frank Pepe wasn’t just a man or a brand or a destiny. Frank Pepe’s is a legend, a pizzeria born nearly a century ago, with roots in the old country, but a symbol of the American pizzeria of the 20th century. Frank Pepe’s made almost every list of the best pizzerias in the country, at least the ones they knew what they were talking about.
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I took my first trip to the original Frank Pepe in the Wooster Square neighborhood of New Haven twelve years ago while working for another newspaper. It was a research trip, and as such, it didn’t allow any moment when you could just relax into the experience – and soak up both the past and the present, feeling the connection between the two. I returned to Pepe a few years later. I was alone this time. I remember how lucky I was to get a table without waiting in that famous Pepe line.
When I visited Pepe’s in 2010, the pizzeria had already begun to expand, though its reach was limited to Connecticut — and a bold foray into a historic Italian-American neighborhood in Yonkers, NY. — with pizzas (pronounced a-beets) so inextricably linked to Wooster Square and the Italian immigrants who settled there — would soon open a location in South Florida, in a 27-acre joint venture that calls itself “the premier community of Broward County lifestyle.”
On the other hand, I never would have anticipated that my next visits to Pepe’s would take place at the Westfield Montgomery mall in Bethesda, where the pizzeria is across the hall from a Cheesecake Factory. I still haven’t figured out the proper response—shock, resignation, sadness, uncontrolled laughter—to the fact that I can bite into a pizza baked in an artisanal charcoal oven just steps from a restaurant where I can order Dynamite shrimp off the SkinnyLicious® menu.
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Stay with me here. I am providing this context not just for comic relief or to demonstrate how the capitalist impulse can, with half a chance, undermine the character of an American institution. No, I am providing this context to highlight the small miracle that occurred when I tasted my first Frank Pepe’s pie in Bethesda: I felt the walls of the big box collapse and I was back on Wooster Street, my fingers blackened with ash and my nostrils full of smell of garlic and salty shellfish. The relief I felt was palpable. I was in no mood for regicide.
That this mall-based Pepe’s sticks so closely to the original is no accident. Frank Pepe’s Development Co., the entity responsible for expanding the king’s empire, remains a family business, although it has attracted investors. Each new location is owned by the company. There are no franchisees, a business model that mimics the one followed by In-N-Out Burger, another American institution that has expanded beyond its base.
The next Frank Pepe’s will be located in Alexandria, 14th in the growing chain. The goal, says Stephen Molampy, the development company’s director of operations, is to open 25 stores by 2025. One of the keys to Pepe’s consistency from store to store is his ability to faithfully recreate the charcoal kiln of the Wooster Street location. . The company hired engineers to create a design for that original, 100,000-pound, custom-built brick kiln so teams could build others like it at other locations.
“When we started this, the main question was, ‘How can we replicate this oven?’” Molampy tells me. “That doesn’t exist anywhere. It was built by hand.”
The teams even spent a few weeks tempering the oven, burning thousands of dollars worth of sausages, pepperoni, oil and dough in the chamber, all to lock those classic flavors into the bricks. It’s like wok hei, but for pizza ovens, an alchemy of ingredients and cooking containers that produces flavors impossible to replicate otherwise.
All the hallmarks of a Pepe pie are right there at the mall: the thin, puffy crust that’s crunchier and chewier than the soft 00-flour versions of the Neapolitan pizza the DC area has become accustomed to; the drops of blackened farina on the underside of the crust, as if its slice had been dragged by the ashes of an open hearth; the unmistakable interplay between the salty, crispy crust and the bitter coal bubbles that form around the edges; the sweet and sour flavors of freshly ground Italian tomatoes cooked in a 600 degree oven.
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This crust is the basis for some of my favorite pizzas anywhere: the original tomato pie with grated Pecorino Romano, a testament to minimalism, which should be eaten without mozzarella (or mootz, as they say in Wooster Square), no matter how many. sometimes the server may ask if you want it; the spinach, mushroom and gorgonzola slice, in which the blue cheese and mushrooms fit, fungus on fungus; and, of course, the white clam, Pepe’s signature pie, a combination that many have tried, and failed, to replicate.
Unlike the giant across the aisle, Frank Pepe’s in Bethesda only serves a handful of items: pizza, salads (the namesake bowl with its sour balsamic vinaigrette is the perfect counterbalance to the lead carbs), Foxon Park soda (birch white all the way) and a few desserts, including a mascarpone limoncello that ends the meal on a sweet note.
The concise, precisely executed menu is a reminder that while the pizzeria may be expanding away from its base, Frank Pepe still knows who he is.
Frank Pepe Neapolitan Pizzeria
7101 Democracy Blvd., inside the Westfield Montgomery Mall, Bethesda, Maryland, 301-304-7373; pizza pizzeria. with
hours: 11 am to 10 pm daily.