The story of American pizza is dynastic and maybe a bit like an epic movie. Impoverished Italian men with names like Lombardi, Pero, and Grimaldi found themselves in overcrowded, turn-of-the-century northeastern cities, part of the huge wave of Italian immigration from the pre-industrial south. Through intelligence and ceaseless labors, these immigrants climbed above the fray, attaining wealth for themselves and their progeny in a new, opportunity-filled land.
Cue Robert DeNiro in knee britches looking romantic in sepia-toned gaslight.
The reality is somewhat less handsome, but still the stuff of legends. Sixteen-year-old Frank Pepe, a bread baker from Maiori, a town south of Naples, emigrated to New Haven’s Italian neighborhood with the intention of working at the Sargent lock factory. Not caring much for factory work, Pepe reverted to his baker’s trade, hawking loaves up and down the stairs of Wooster Square tenements. At some point, the young baker decided to revive bread from his Neapolitan roots, a foccacia-like round topped with canned tomatoes and studded with anchovies. (This mozzarella-free pie is still a New Haven specialty, though it no longer sports the anchovies.)
The debut of New Haven pizza was a raging success, and, by 1925, Frank Pepe had opened his first “pizzeria Napoletana,” at 163 Wooster Street, in the alley-entered nook now called “The Spot.” Its heart was a massive, white-tiled coal oven that blasted pizzaiolos and customers alike in volcanic heat. (Though Pepe’s now owns “The Spot,” Frank Pepe was booted from the site in 1936 by its then landlords, who promptly opened a rival pizzeria. Frank Pepe moved his restaurant to the building next door: 157 Wooster Street, its current site.)
Meanwhile, back in Yonkers, Ricky’s Clam House—a modest seafood joint—opened in 1931 in a shack on the forested, two-lane wilds of the rural Route 100. It sold clams on the half-shell to motorists escaping the city for pleasure (the ’20s and ’30s were the heyday of American road food). As in Yonkers and many eastern cities, local shellfish were an indulgence of the hoi polloi, to whom “clam
houses” (or even pushcarts) offered briny slurps for a few pennies. One such New Haven pushcart, operated by rival restaurant-world scion “Bear” Boccamiello (whose family then owned “the Spot”), slung the bargain bivalves in the alley next to Pepe’s; watching its success through his window, Frank Pepe decided to offer his own clams on the half-shell at Pepe’s.
That particular menu item at Pepe’s vanished (along with the 25-cent “cream cheese pizza”), though Pepe’s ’60’s-era white clam pizza became the iconic pie of an a pizza obsessed town. The pie, and its originator, earned growing fame through ever-changing populations of Yalies, who still pack this restaurant until it’s nearly impossible to get a seat. It’s easy to understand the mob. Each haphazardly shaped pie is lavishly studded with barely chopped top-neck clams, salty/sheepy Pecorino Romano cheese, and great chunks of garlic roasted until they’re mellow in Pepe’s 700ËšF coal oven. I personally have eaten more of these pizzas than I care to admit, though much of my romance with Pepe’s comes from Wooster Street pizzaiolos, who dance in and out of the oven mouth while brandishing smoking, 15-foot pizza peels.
Frank Pepe, whose fabled work ethic earned him the moniker “Old Reliable,” died in 1969, though Pepe’s Pizzeria is still family-owned. Pepe was survived by two daughters, and, through them, seven grandchildren inherited Pepe’s Neapolitan Pizzeria. Rumblings of family disharmony among the cousins abound even as it spreads its brand; it’s rumored that the two sides of grandchildren requested to view the Yonkers site separately. In just the last few years, Pepe’s Pizzerias have opened in Fairfield, Manchester, and the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. The Yonkers restaurant (1955 Central Ave, 914-961-8284) is set to open this month: it will mark Pepe’s Pizzeria’s first foray outside the state of Connecticut.
The Frank Pepe Development Corporation is taking few chances. The Yonkers pizzaiolos will have completed a six- to 12-month apprenticeship dancing at the Wooster Street ovenmouth, learning through repitition the fiery behemoth’s hot and cool spots. (Cooking in a coal oven is an art, where everything from wind to ambient humidity affects the finished product.) Instead of a large single oven, the Yonkers space will hold two, whose combined 35,000-pound mass was built by the Frank Pepe Development Corporation as perfect copies of the original. The iron doors to the Yonkers ovens are cast from their New Haven ancestor, and even on the Yonkers sidewalk, you’ll find a New Haven man hole cover capping the coal chute. The idea of bringing in New Haven water for the dough has been bandied, but anyone who has ever tasted a New Haven tap will appreciate that CT-bottled Foxon Park birch beer and lemon-lime “gassosa,” among others, are available for drinking.
Recently, I spoke with Francis Rosselli, grandson of Frank Pepe. He and his cousin Gary Bimonte are the most prominent Pepe’s figureheads, though Rosselli is generally acknowledged to be the caretaker of the family history. Rosselli is an elegant man—slim, like a tan Stanley Tucci—with eyes that twinkle with unspoken stories whenever I blundered across inevitable familial minefields.
Rosselli has never read Ed Levine’s definitive book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, even though he looms largely in it. “When I come across something inaccurate, I just cringe and can’t go any further.” Aside from his years at the oven, Rosselli is a musician by training; he plays the lute and specializes in the music of the Renaissance. His business card bears a line drawing of a cathedral’s stained glass rose window.
I ask, How did a man like you keep sane doing the same thing over and over? He responds with the classic cookie answer: “I made it work for me. I couldn’t really change the menu, but I was constantly refining my movements, making them more efficient, faster. Always getting better. The work can be interesting—and it certainly is demanding.”
And the pizza—has it changed? “I can’t eat pizza,” he says as a wide smile spreads across his face. Laughing like a man who knows his Dante, he confides, “I have celiac disease—it’s God’s joke.”