Frank Pepe's Limited Ed. Tomato Pie
When it was time to head back to New York from Cape Cod last Friday, the hour of our departure presented an opportunity for two fine road meals. First we stopped at Barlow’s Clam Shack ("We have been cooking on Cape Cod since 1668 when Grammaw Jane Besse-Barlow was convicted of cooking and selling her fine liquor to the Native Americans here"), where our friend R. and I picked up a couple of lobster rolls ($13.99 each, served with fries).
The anatomy of a proper lobster roll (and lobster roll culture overall) merit a full post someday, but for the purpose of this one — which mainly is to describe a great-but-expiring currently on offer one at Frank Pepe, a pizzeria founded in New Haven, CT in 1925 — I’ll just say that Barlow’s lobster roll was proper enough: a grilled-on-the-outside hot dog bun, I'm pretty sure no mayonnaise, and overstuffed with chunks of unadorned lobster meat (plus one unnecessary leaf of lettuce). Purity at its best — though I wish I'd thought to ask for some lemon!
The second meal of the drive began as a quest for pizza at Frank Pepe in New Haven — a place that happens to serve some of America’s best pizza. While driving along Route 95, I asked my wife Kristin to tell me about the Pepe menu:
“Do they have different sizes?”
“Yes. Small, medium, and large.”
“So I can have a small clam?”
“So let’s get a small clam and a medium plain. Good?”
“Well it says that from July 1 to Labor Day only, they have one made with 'Fresh Native Tomatoes.'"
“Ok. So let’s get a small of that, and a small clam, and a medium plain.”
“1/2 pepperoni on the plain for Julia,” she added.
“Great,” I said.
It may read like a perfectly polite and unloaded conversation about ordering pizza, but in fact much more was going on. Neither Kristin nor our daughter eats clam, and our friend said she would eat whatever. Also, when Kristin mentioned this fresh tomato pie, it was my cue to say, “Great let’s get a medium fresh tomato one and a small with pepperoni for Julia.”
But I wanted more. I wanted a regular pie (it had been several years since I’d had it) — and of course I wanted a clam pizza because I like clams. A lot.
Pepe's had a huge line when we arrived. So we called in an order to go. Or tried to. The lady on the phone told Kristin it would be a 90 minute wait. “It’s crazy,” she told her, “It’s ridiculous. It’s never like this.”
[Note: If ever one should seek proof that people are insane for good pizza we should look to this Friday experience at Pepe's. An hour and a half wait for a pizza to go? Wow!]
I pray every day that all the old places I love —including Frank Pepe, Totonno’s, John’s, Patsy’s in Harlem, Arturo’s, Di Fara, and Luigi’s — that they stay around. This line at Pepe's reassured me that the good ones can survive.
We immediately called one of Frank Pepe’s satellite locations — one just down the highway in Fairfield, CT. Pizza at original locations is always better than at replicas (it’s just how it is with pizza), but we had no choice.
That said, this Pepe's replica in Fairfield does do Pepe's right. The restaurant is built into a Connecticut-looking house alongside the highway and close to the on- and off-ramps. And: standing in a parking lot huddled around the sloping trunk of our hatchback consuming way more pizza than we should in a town we'd never been to? Not too shabby!
Oh, so my wife. She was 100% right. Anyone who knows me or has read my stories knows that I like to judge a pizza first and foremost by the quality of its straight-up plain. But Pepe's "Native Tomato" ranks as one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had.
Like the crusts of the other two pies we had, this one's was charred black in spots, crispy, and with good salt: classic Pepe. It had no sauce but was plenty saucy from the garlic- and basil-spiked chunks of soft ripe tomato.
Paul Westerberg sang, "Feeling Freshy? Call Lovelines." I say: "Call Frank Pepe!" With only two weeks left on these pies, I urge you to head there pronto.
I called Pepe's to ask how they make those tomatoes and got Gary Bimonte of the Pepe family on the phone.What luck. Maybe he would share with me a clue of some sort.
I got no solid answers (pizzeria owners are often secretive), but here's what I did learn (or surmise): Pepe's marinates roughly diced fresh tomatoes in olive oil, basil, garlic, and spices. The only cooking involved occurs when the pizza is baked in the oven.
Fresh tomato pizza usually means slices of tomato baked on top of mozzarella and tomato sauce. One exception is Pizza by Certé, a place on West 55th Street in New York —they use fresh tomatoes year round to make sauce. But they skin and deseed their tomatoes, run them through a meat grinder, and then cook them with caramelized onions. (Story and recipe here.)
So how does Pepe's accomplish saucy without cooking or pureeing? I can only theorize. Is it thanks to the time they get to marinate? Is it because they're juicy to begin with? Perhaps because the cooks are sure to retain and use all of the juice that squirts out? I suspect all of the above.
I also did not learn what types of tomatoes they use. ("They're fresh tomatoes chosen according to Pepe's specifications.")
Are they from the area? ("We only use tomatoes from certain areas because we want to deliver the best quality product.")
Really, you can't tell me? I wanna make it at home! ("Competition is so fierce and we're expanding. I have to be very careful about what I divulge.")
I may have gotten nowhere on my quest for details, but that won't prevent me from attempting to make one at home. Anyway, I did learn a few good nuggets about Pepe's history during the call.
"My grandfather started out with a plain tomato, or tomato pie, or tomato apizza, you might call it. Back then all you had was plain tomato, or tomato & anchovy. No mozzarella."
"He added mozzarella probably in the late '20s or early '30s. But back then mozzarella was called a 'cream cheese.' In fact, when I first started there in the early 1970s, our abbreviation for mozzarella was 'CC.'"
"Clam pizza got introduced in the late '40s or early '50s. There was a person cutting clams and selling them on the half shell in the alleyway between the buildings. The guy said to my grandfather, 'Pop, why don't you put some of them on the pizza?'"
I also asked about Frank Pepe's southward expansion. There are currently seven locations, all in Connecticut except for one in Yonkers — just north of New York City. Does Pepe's southern march mean they have sights on New York City. (No comment.)
[Final Note: Thanks to my friend Nick A. for the original heads-up on this tomato pizza. He and I have schemed for over a year on how to eke out a visit to New Haven or at least to Yonkers, which isn't so far from where we live. And yet we haven't. Since he's going away on Wednesday until after Labor Day, it'll have to be next summer.]
Frank Pepe in New Haven. 157 Wooster Street. Tel. 203-865-5762. Map Frank Pepe New Haven. Hours: Sunday - Thursday 11 am - 10 pm, Friday - Saturday 11 am - 11 pm.
Frank Pepe in Fairfield. 238 Commerce Drive. Tel. 203-333-7373. Map Frank Pepe Fairfield. Hours: Sunday - Thursday 11:30 am - 10 pm, Friday - Saturday 11:30 am - 11 pm.
Frank Pepe in Yonkers. 1955 Central Park Avenue. 914-961-8284. Map Frank Pepe Yonkers. Open daily 11:30 am - 10 pm.
Consult Frank Pepe website for additional locations.
Barlow's Clam Shack in Buzzards Bay, MA. 656 Scenic Highway. Tel. 508-272-8749. Map Barlow's. Call for hours.