Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (New Haven, CT)

With all the traveling I do, I occasionally find myself visiting one of my favorite restaurants, and realizing upon reviewing the extensive history of Offbeat Eats that despite thinking that I’ve reviewed a place, that I actually hadn’t written it up yet. A trip late last year to New Haven resulted in my brother and I meeting up for pizza at what’s always been the benchmark for pizza in our extended family: Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana. And I was shocked that somehow, over almost 18 years of reviews, that Pepe’s hadn’t yet gotten a review.

Pizza, more than most any other common food I can think of, is a story of regional styles (before they restructured their content, Serious Eats had a really good guide on it, but a similar guide is still to be found over on Spruce Eats), and one of my overall favorite styles (much of this courtesy of Pizza Cognition theory, since it was the “pizza” I was raised with as a benchmark), “New Haven Style Pizza” remains my overall favorite pizza style. And for anyone around New Haven, or familiar with its “Apizza” style, it’s impossible to have a discussion of the style without an argument about which iconic place dominates. Most folks recognize the triad of New Haven pizza places at the top of the food chain: Frank Pepe’s, Sally’s Apizza (down the street), or on the other side of town, Modern Apizza (which I have reviewed), but if I’ve got the time, I still always gravitate towards Pepe’s. Admittedly, much of this is faith (I’ve still got extended family members with strong preferences, and a visit to Sally’s is an eyebrow-raiser), but when I think of “New Haven Pizza”, a slice of Pepe’s is exactly what I’m picturing in my mind. So after a call to my cousin, we all gathered at Pepe’s to catch up and enjoy our favorite pizza.

The neighborhood itself, Wooster Street, is still a pocket of smaller residences and restaurants that constitutes a minor “Little Italy” on the far south end of New Haven’s downtown area (south of Wooster Street, there’s highway and industrial areas until you hit the waterfront), but the overall neighborhood remains focused on Italian food, with Pepe’s, Sally’s down the street, a half-dozen other Italian and Apizza joints, and a handful of bakeries and wine shops.

Walking inside shortly after opening (since we picked an early dining time, we beat the evening rush), the immediate experience at Pepe’s is almost exactly the same as it was on my childhood visits of the mid-1970s: walking in and gazing at half of the left-hand storefront’s floor space being built around a gigantic open kitchen focused on a giant coal-fired pizza oven that’s been pretty much the same since they moved here from the adjacent property in 1937 (the original 1925 location eventually got repurchased and now runs as “The Spot”, basically a Pepe’s annex, function room, and overflow). While Pepe’s the business has changed a lot (Frank Pepe’s heirs eventually gave in to pressure and decided to turn it into a chain with locations across New England), a few more people in this post-pandemic world seem to opt to get their pies to-go, the prices have increased (mostly tracking inflation), and the beer selection eventually shifted from “We’ve got both beers: Genessee and Narragansett!” into having a reasonable craft beer selection, the experience has remained shockingly and refreshingly unchanged. Indeed, my brother, cousin, and I even got seated at the same table I remember sitting at in 1977, still with a good view of the fresh pizzas coming out of the oven.

But enough of all that background… let’s talk about the important thing: the pizza. I’ve long had a standard order at Pepe’s, and that’s a mushroom, sasuage, and mozzarella pie. It’s worth noting here that Pepe’s is old-school: the default order for a pizza (a “pie”) doesn’t actually assume mozzarella, although if you look like an out-of-towner, they’ll likely double-check with you. But they’ve always used good, fresh mushrooms, and a very flavorful and not overly-greasy fennel-heavy sausage, which makes for a great combination. And, about 10 minutes later, our pizza arrived. Like most New Haven pizza, Pepe’s isn’t the most photogenic, and it’s even deliberately cut a little on the sloppy side as a bit of a trademark. But in that sloppiness hides some greatness. Good pizza is really about crust first and foremost, and Pepe’s excels at this, with a really nicely charred crust. This is pretty much the epitome of a perfect coal-fired pizza: chewy, flavorful, smokey, and thoroughly roasted top and bottom. Add on some quality toppings, a tomato sauce that really is just salt and crushed tomatoes, and the good sausage, with everything crisped to perfection, and this is what most other pizza simply aspires to be. While a bit on the overall salty end of the spectrum, this is pizza perfection.

Since there were three of us, we opted for a second pie, this one going with the classic “American Standard” pie of Pepperoni and Mozzarella. This makes for a slightly different overall pie as the extra fat from the pepperoni crisps up a bit more, for a crispier (but fattier) pizza. But again, it’s that combination of a perfect crust and crisped toppings that isn’t overwhelmed by sauce of cheese that ties everything together here.

In a world where many traditions always seem to fade away, I’m happy every time I go to Frank Pepe: the pizza is still, literally, world class, the staff friendly, and the overall experience shocking unchanged. While there is often a wait (sometimes a long one) for a seat or even a pizza to go, it’s still worth the effort.

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