Today, pizza from New Haven, Connecticut, is legendary for its misshapen appearance, thin crust and charred edges. But someone had to start it all, and that someone was Frank Pepe, who opened the now-legendary Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in 1925.
Pepe, an immigrant from Italy’s Amalfi Coast, returned to New Haven in 1920 after World War I with his new bride, Filomena, and eventually opened his own bakery. “One day, he flattened out some bread dough and put some leftovers on top of it, and they baked it—voila!” Gary Bimonte, grandson of Frank Pepe and one of the seven grandchildren who inherited the business from Pepe’s daughters, told PMQ in 2010. “He would go to the local markets and sell it—‘Apizza, apizza, ten cents a slice!’”
Pepe’s family lived above the restaurant and worked downstairs every day to build up their humble business. Pepe was often seen walking around the Wooster Square market with several pies perched on his head as he drummed up business. Soon, he’d saved up enough money to buy a cart. He just had one problem: He couldn’t speak English at first. Fortunately, Filomena could, and she adroitly managed the business side of the pizzeria while her husband handled the food.
At first, Pepe sold two simple styles, baked in a coal-fired oven: the tomato pie (topped with tomatoes, grated cheese, garlic, oregano and olive oil) and another topped with anchovies. In the 1960s, however, the pie forever associated with Pepe was born: the White Clam Pizza.
Pepe’s celebrates 98 years in business this year and has expanded to seven locations in Connecticut, plus a new store that opened recently in Delray Beach, Florida. The Original Tomato Pie is still prominently featured on the menu, along with a newer addition: the Fresh Tomato Pie, a summertime-only pizza made with fresh, locally grown tomatoes. Many consider the pizzeria the best on Wooster Street, which is known for its historic and highly competitive pizzerias.
The secret, Bimonte told PMQ, relies on maintaining the status quo. “We haven’t changed anything from my grandfather’s original recipe,” he said at the time. “Just surviving three generations is very difficult, but we try to keep Frank Pepe’s legacy alive.”
Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor. This story has been reposted and updated from the original version, which appeared in the September 2010 issue of PMQ.