Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, known locally as Pepe's, is a popular pizza restaurant in the Wooster Square neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut at 163 Wooster Street. Opened in 1925, it is one of the oldest and best known pizzerias in the United States.
Pepe's was founded in 1925 by Frank Pepe (April 15, 1893 – September 6, 1969), an Italian immigrant. Pepe was born in Maiori, Italy, and immigrated to New Haven in 1909 at the age of 17. The quintessential Wooster Square Italian immigrant (poor, uneducated, enthusiastic), he took a job at a New Haven factory, but he hated it.
During World War I, Pepe went back to Italy to fight for his beloved native country. Upon returning, he soon landed a job working at a bakery on Wooster Street which was a much better fit for him. Pepe began walking through the Wooster Square market and sold his "tomato pies" off of a special headdress. After saving up enough money, he was able to buy a wagon to sell his pizzas from. He did so well with his pizzas that he was eventually able to take over his employer's business and turn it into the first "Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana" on June 16, 1925. Frank Pepe died on September 6, 1969.
Pepe's originated the New Haven-style thin-crust apizza (closely related to Neapolitan-style Italian pizza) which he baked in a coal-fired brick oven. Originally, Frank Pepe only made two varieties of pizza: the "plain" (oregano, chopped garlic, tomato sauce, and grated pecorino romano cheese) and the "marinara" (tomato sauce, grated cheese, and anchovies).
The piece of land which Pepe's restaurant sat on was owned by the Boccamiello family. They later made Frank Pepe leave so that they could start their own pizzeria at the establishment, which they renamed The Spot. Pepe moved his restaurant to its current location next door to The Spot in 1936. The Pepe family later bought back The Spot from the Boccamiello family in 1981 and it now serves the same menu as the newer restaurant.
In the alleyway between The Spot and Pepe's, Boccamiello's nephew Bear would open clams and sell them on the half shell to passersby. Pepe's restaurant began serving littleneck clams on the half shell at the bar. It was only a matter of time before he decided to put the clams on the pizza. The white clam pie is just crust, olive oil, oregano, grated cheese, chopped garlic, and fresh littleneck clams. The restaurant will serve the pizza with or without mozzarella, but they try to discourage customers from ordering it with mozzarella because they feel that it makes the pizza too heavy and rich. They are also adamant on using freshly shucked clams as opposed to canned clams; if fresh clams are not available then they will not serve the white clam pie. Three men are employed by Pepe's just for shucking the clams on location. Since its invention, the white clam pie has become the signature pizza among the New Haven pizzerias.
Today Pepe's is particularly known for its innovation of the white pizza topped with freshly shucked littleneck clams. This type of pizza pie became one of the restaurant's famous specialties - the by-product of Frank Pepe's allergies to tomatoes and cheese.
All Pepe's locations feature the same menu.
Small, Medium and Large pies are sold with following toppings available.
A small tossed salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing is available.
All Pepe's ovens are coal fired and built in exactly the same manner from brick, based on the original. They measure 14 by 14 feet and cook pizzas in approximately 8 to 10 minutes.
Pepe's is currently expanding outside of New Haven as a small family owned chain. Nine relatives are co-owners of the chain, including grandsons Gary Bimonte and Francis Rosselli. All locations feature the same green and white design of their building and fixtures, serve on the square pizza pans and use the same suppliers for their ingredients.
Another Wooster Street pizza restaurant, Sally's Apizza, was founded by Pepe's nephew Sal Consiglio in 1938. Sally's and Pepe's have a long friendly rivalry and pizza fans are divided over which serves the better pizza. Frank Sinatra, for example, was a fan of Sally's, while President Ronald Reagan preferred Pepe's.
Pepe's is a busy establishment, and New Havenites will cheerfully wait in line outside the restaurant for hours in all kinds of weather. Having to wait to be seated is almost as much of a New Haven tradition as the pizza itself. Pepe's is also a major tourist attraction in New Haven.