In the beginning, God created New Haven. He then saw what he had done and, in an effort to make amends, created Frank Pepe Pizzeria.
It really is that good, aficionados say: a piece of divinity in the midst of drab humanity. And now, heaven be praised, Pepe’s supposedly is coming to Boston. Finally someone will show us how it’s supposed to be done!
We’ve heard this tale before: FAO Schwarz, Krispy Kreme, Wegmans, Yuengling beer. The hype for each has been over-the-top, the reality less so.
The much-anticipated FAO Schwarz outlet in Back Bay was a marvel, anchored by a giant teddy bear sculpture that greeted shoppers into a “world of toys.” But the glitz was not enough to make up for the too-high prices, and in 2003 it shuttered. The Boston bear now graces the Floating Hospital for Children.
Meanwhile, Southern institution Krispy Kreme vowed to show us how a real doughnut tastes. Even as FAO was closing, it began its great march into New England. Transplants from the land of the Confederacy waxed rhapsodic about the near-mystical goodness to come when the neon sign said “Hot Now” and so we queued up, sometimes for hours. While waiting, we were handed a sample, and it seemed extraordinary. We tried a second, and we cringed as sugar overload hit hard in the upper palate, like a too-sweet birthday cake. Dunkin’ Donuts, supposedly locked in mortal struggle, emerged an easy victor. Three years later, Krispy Kreme had retreated, unable to bridge the cultural gulf between north and south.
There’s a pattern here. Wegmans, the much-talked-about family grocer concentrated in upstate New York, is moving into New England. No question, it’s well done, and Shaw’s and Stop & Shop could learn a thing or two about friendlier service. But at the end of the day, it’s just another grocery store.
And then there’s Yuengling, billed as America’s oldest brewery and now making a major foray into Massachusetts after a two-decade-long absence. Suddenly, the signature lager graces taps in watering holes around the city. And the beer itself? Caramel in color, it’s got a promising look, but light and thin in taste it quickly fades to anonymity. Better than a Bud, to be sure, but Harpoon and Sam Adams needn’t worry.
But back to Frank Pepe. This, I’m assured, is the real deal. A ranking by The Daily Meal of the 101 best pizzas in America agrees, putting Pepe’s at the top of its list. I’m skeptical, though. Boston has its share of pizza stalwarts: Regina and Santarpio’s, of course, as well as a number of more recent offerings, such as Picco and the Salty Pig. Can a pie originally from New Haven really best all of them?
I make the trek to Connecticut to see what the hype is all about, order a regular cheese and a white clam pie, and bite into each.
But hardly a revelation. Angels don’t appear with trumpets; I don’t fall into a dead swoon. Covered with fresh clams, grated cheese, garlic, and oil, the flavor of the white pizza is intense. The first slice is delicious but the next few — kind of like Krispy Kreme — seem less so. Perhaps it’s best experienced in smaller doses. The cheese pizza is a good rendition but seems underflavored. I bring some home and compare it to Regina’s. The two are similar. Regina’s is a little tastier, though, the crust lighter and not as chewy.
So welcome to the neighborhood, Frank. We’ve already got great pizza — six local pizzerias also made The Daily Meal’s top 101 — but there’s always room for more. Still there’s a kind of coals-to-Newcastle problem with your expansion. If I were looking to grow, I’d head south and west. In towns where Pizza Hut and Domino’s are the best things around, you’d really get noticed. Here, you’ll be just another face in the crowd.