Monday, June 7, 2010

The Last Temptation of Pizza: Frank Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana

As food bloggers it is only right that we pay respect to our cities patron saint. Muslims flock to Mecca, chatty middle-English folk to Canterbury. Likewise, New Havenites and pizza enthusiasts travel to worship at Pepe's Pizzeria on Wooster Street. As any pizza scholar knows, Pepe's is not the only shrine dedicated to pizza pie in town, but it is New Haven Eats It's favorite. Here in New Haven we have the Big Three: Pepe's, Sally's, and Modern; each with cult followers respectively.

We consider Pepe’s the first to get it right. We decided to worship during a slow service so we visited during lunch. Going to Pepe’s for dinner is like waiting to confess to the Pope, longer lines than video game releases and with the same absolute results. We were invited to sit ourselves and were soon greeted by a waitress friendly enough to be completely unmemorable. Like a good altar boy she was attentive to her task, but did not perform it so excellently to detract from the real star of the show: the pizza. Parched, we ordered Foxon Park soda whose fame rivals that of Pepe’s. If Jesus needed a pick me up after a hard day throwing money lenders out of temple, he’d order the Cherry flavor.

The brick oven is huge enough to cook a Golem in. One can't help but sit in awe and anticipation each time the door opens. There is a giant handled pizza paddle which hangs like ultimate Spanish Inquisition punishment from the ceiling.

The simple decor reveals an undercurrent of Pepe’s narcissism. Photographs, which are now icons of Frank Pepe and past pizza makers, hang on the walls. To be noted is the picture of Frank and (labeled as such) ‘Ugly Nephew’ Sal Consiglio. The mustache drawn on that picture is a little much but that’s family for you. Sal is the founder of Sally's. Sally’s got into the game with their update of "_____ did ___ here," with "Frank Sinatra ate here” (and banged a waitress or two). However, Sally’s is an offshoot of Pepe’s, much like "Joanie Love Chachi" is that of "Happy Days."

The pizza arrives on a metal tray with napkins, paper plates and utensils. All are unnecessary but the former. The cheese is gooey and at first bite you know the mozzarella is fresher than the Prince of Bel-Air. The sauce is lighter than a sparrow landing on snow, tastier than a fresh tomato. Each bite reveals a care and craft, rare to find elsewhere in a New Haven pie (sorry Alpha Delta). Pepe’s managed to turn Love into an ingredient and sprinkled it liberally into each creation.

Frank Pepe is New Haven's patron saint and the pizzeria that bares his name, his temple furthering his word. The faithful flock to Wooster Street, not out of hunger for charred, thin crust pie, but out of devotion. Surely, there are other pizzerias and more convenient restaurants in the city serving New Haven’s renowned masterpiece. But it is the religious experience the Pepe's diner is after. And just like after a Sunday mass or saint day, pastries can be enjoyed down the street at Libby's.

Now you might ask, Why the need for saints when people are jumping off the Catholicism bandwagon left and right? Because Pepe's and the other big three are part of New Haven’s identity. The big three, known nationally, bring a tear of pride to our eyes. Chicago and New York, those are just names on a map. New Haven is a place to eat.

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