How Hard Is It To Be #1? – Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napolitana
Have you heard of Frank Pepe Pizzeria? Chances are, if you don’t live in Connecticut, you had not. With 2 pizzerias on literally every corner of every town (there are about 70,000 Pizza restaurants in US!), should you be concerned with the fact that possibly you never heard of Frank Pepe Pizzeria? Well, you decide for yourself – according to the Daily Meal publication in October of 2013, White Clam Pizza from Frank Pepe Pizzeria in New Haven, Connecticut was named the Best Pizza in the United States out of 101 pizzas considered for that title (see, may be it is time to visit Connecticut after all?).
So, how hard it is to be #1? Here is one recipe for success – in three easy steps:
- Do one thing, and be very focused on that one thing.
- Do that one thing very very well.
- Keep doing this one thing very very well, over and over again.
Easy enough, right? This is somewhat of a story of the Frank Pepe Pizzeria.
Together with the group of bloggers, I had a great pleasure of meeting Gary, the grandson of Frank Pepe, at the Frank Pepe Pizzeria in Fairfield, CT. Frank Pepe came to the United States at the beginning of the last century from Italy, in his early teens. He came through New York and ended up in New Haven, Connecticut. He got the job at the bakery and macaroni factory, as those were the skills he already had. Frank went back to Italy to fight in the World War I, then came back to the US, got married, and at some point started selling small pizzas from the cart which he was rolling around. His wife encouraged him to open the store in 1925, which he did. This is where the Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napolitana officially started.
Frank managed to run a successful business throughout the depression years. Take a look at the picture of the Frank Pepe sign from those old days. Do you see the words “old reliable” there? It means exactly what it says – the business you can rely on. Always persistent quality, always persistent taste, always there when you need it. Frank was known as the guy you can knock on the window of at 2 AM in the morning, and he will get up and go make a pizza for you. If this is not dedication and reliability, I don’t know what is.
When Frank Pepe passed away in 1969, he had only two daughters; they took over running of the business and got family involved, so now 7 of Frank’s grandchildren run the business. Gary, Frank’s grandson we talked to, started working in the business when he was 14. Just an interesting fact – he took his first vacation when he was … wait for it… 35.
Remember at the beginning of this post I gave you a short list of things you need to do to be the #1? So I can tell you that, as you probably expected, there are few other small things which matter. One of the seemingly “small things” is an attention to details. Let me explain and also give you few really fascinating facts and numbers along the way.
- One and the same brand of Romano cheese is used by Frank Pepe at all of the stores for over 50 years. The tomatoes are imported from Italy, and they should have a specific taste profile (Gary and his cousin are the official taste testers). That tomato taste profile family keeps secret. More than 15,000 cases of tomatoes are imported in a year, which translates into 90,000 cans! More little details: tomato cans can’t sit under the sun in the truck – the taste is changing, so logistics matter!
- Family was always focused on just continuing the family tradition and family recipe. Only in the past 10 years family slowly started to expand its business, now operating in 7 locations, most of them in Connecticut and one in Yonkers, New York. The family is looking to expand further into New England, but they really move very cautiously. For every new location, the large part of the effort is training of the new staff and setting up the restaurant in exactly the same way as other operate (which starts with oven).
- The charcoal oven matters! It should be properly seasoned, and time is mostly the only way to do it right. The family operates 3 ovens in New Haven alone, and each oven produces slightly different pizza.
- The ovens are kept all the time at the temperature of about 600°F. It takes roughly 7-8 minutes to bake a pizza in the oven.
- All restaurants go through roughly a 500,000 pounds of mozzarella cheese in a year.
- The most asked for pizza in most of the locations is Mozzarella with sausage
- The menu at all Frank Pepe restaurants has nothing but the pizza (I’m talking about the food – soda, beer and wine are offered at all locations). Only 2 years ago green salad was added to the menu!
- Pizza Margherita is being slowly added to the menu throughout the restaurants only now, literally in 2014
- The whole Frank Pepe Pizzeria started from the original tomato pie. Next anchovies were added, then cream cheese, and then sausage. All the sausage used in the Frank Pepe restaurants comes from the same local supplier New Haven. Frank Pepe location in New Haven alone goes through 400-500 pounds of sausage per week!
- Clam pizza evolved back in mid-40s. There was a guy who was selling the clams on the half shell from the cart. He asked Frank to put it on the pizza, Frank agreed, and it became the signature pizza – clam, garlic, oregano – that’s it. In New Haven alone the restaurant goes through 70 bushels of clams per month, 90 during summer. Frank Pepe uses 3 clams suppliers, with the very strict guidelines as to type, size, type of beds etc., and all clams are sourced from New England.
- Since starting working at the restaurant at the age of 14, Gary made more than 1,000,000 pizzas in his life – by himself!
I think you got the picture by now – yes, it is easy to be #1 – you just have to work really hard until you get there.
Let’s talk about the pizza now. We tried three different pizzas – the original tomato, regular cheese and of course, the #1, White Clam Pizza.
The original tomato Pizza was very interesting – the tomatoes were unusually forthcoming, it is now easy to understand why this specific tomato taste profile is so important, it makes the pizza all unique and different. Make no mistake – of course it has cheese sprinkled on top, but the tomato is the star here.
Cheese pizza was also excellent. I don’t know about you, but for me, the crust is very important on the pizza – I need it thin, I need it slightly charred and I need it to break up when I’m folding it – this pizza completely delivered.
You know, I don’t want to lie to you. My favorite pizza, by all means, was the white clam. Before we tried this white clam pizza, I was wondering – how the clams will taste? Will they be chewy and “squeaky” as clams often get? Nope, it was absolutely delicious. Soft pieces of clams, with perfect texture, accompanied by perfect amount of garlic and fresh herbs – I’m generally not a pizza guy, but I’m craving a piece as I’m writing this. Yes, you have to taste it to believe it.
This concludes the description of the wonderful experience we had a Frank Pepe Pizzeria in Fairfield, Connecticut. Now I definitely want to visit the original restaurant in New Haven – after learning so much about the history of this restaurant, I want to experience the place where it all started.
Yes, we are done here. Until the next time – cheers!