It’s been six decades since Frank Pepe, an Italian immigrant living in New Haven, Conn., spread some Rhode Island littlenecks he was serving as appetizers on pizza dough, stuck it in a coal-fired oven until the crust charred, and created the white clam pie.
Since then, Frank Pepe’s white clam pizza, or “apizza” as it’s referred to in New Haven, has been celebrated and adopted along the Northeast.
In the past year, two Rhode Island restaurants — Pizza Marvin in Providence and Nana’s Bakery & Pizza in Westerly — have introduced their own takes on the clam pizza.
Pizza Marvin’s “Chowdah Pie,” a riff on clam chowder, hosts a bed of littleneck clams, sourced from Andrade’s Catch in Bristol, still nestled in their open shell. The clams cook with, and on, the pizza, the oven’s heat naturally opening them. The pizza also includes bacon, red onion, boiled and cubed potatoes from Ferolbink Farms in Tiverton, Bechamel, fresh herbs, and lemon. It’s a delicious, heavy pie with a briny kick from the clams.
“The pie looks awesome with whole clams on it,” said Pizza Marvin co-owner Jesse Hedberg. “It might be a slight pain in the ass to eat for some people, but they probably wouldn’t order a pizza like that anyways.”
Despite also featuring clams, potatoes, and pork as the main elements of its clam pizza, Nana’s Bakery’s “The Rhode Island” doesn’t taste or look anything like Pizza Marvin’s. On its thin, organic sourdough crust, Rhode Island clams from Sea Well Seafood in Pawcatuck, Conn., are joined with thin potato slices, soppressata (referred to in Westerly as “soupy”), fermented hot peppers, lemon, oregano, and a red sauce that consists of tomatoes and shio koji.
“It is a little bit of a regional hodgepodge,” Nana’s co-owner and chef James Wayman said about the pie.
Both restaurants’ clam pizzas are far departures from Pepe’s famously simple white clam pie, which combines the daily-shucked clams with chopped garlic, oregano, olive oil, and pecorino Romano.
Jennifer Kelly, Frank Pepe’s granddaughter and co-owner of the business with her sisters and first cousins, said her grandfather always made it clear to keep the pizza simple.
“Put your attention on one thing, and make it the best. Grandpop was the example, and this is how we carried out his instructions,” Kelly wrote to the Globe.
Pepe’s clam pie has been awarded the best pizza in America several times, and pizza aficionados often refer to trips to Pepe’s, and other New Haven pizzeria classics like Modern or Sally’s, as pilgrimages.
The Frank Pepe’s in Warwick uses the same ingredients as the original location and is also cooked in a coal-fired oven, as is the case for all of their locations, Kelly said. Her own preference for white clam pies: add bacon. “The flavor is smoky and briney for the clam pie,” she said.
Kelly can recall the moment when she first saw a clam pie being served outside of New Haven. While her response may have focused on how the clams weren’t freshly shucked, she recalls her grandfather’s philosophy as: “There is always enough to go around.”
Pizza Marvin chef and co-owner Robert Andreozzi credits Pepe’s as his introduction to clam pizza. He said he probably went there five times before trying the other New Haven staples.
“My understanding is that Pepe’s is the clam pizza place,” said Andreozzi, who was recently nominated for a James Beard award for Best Chef: Northeast. “Even before I was exposed to New Haven-style pizza, I knew about Pepe’s.”
For Wayman and Nana’s, Pepe’s wasn’t his inspiration for “The Rhode Island,” but he did admit it was “probably at the back of my head at some point.” He acknowledged another clam pizza that Nana’s original location in Mystic, Conn., serves as the inspiration for “The Rhode Island.” That one is dubbed “The New England.” And, similar to Pizza Marvin’s pie, it’s also framed around clam chowder with clams, potatoes, bacon, garlic butter, and parsley.
“[The New England] came from just making lots of chowder in my life,” Wayman said. “I was like, ‘I want to make a pizza with the flavors of chowder.’”
The story of Pizza Marvin’s “Chowdah Pie” begins with a tale of exploding clams. Andreozzi and Hedberg tried cooking the clams on the pizza when they opened in late 2020. But the oven temperature — about 100 degrees hotter than it is now — was causing the littlenecks to explode in the oven. Instead, they moved forward with using chopped clams, first on a pizza inspired by clams casino, and later, for the “Chowdah Pie,” which hit the menu about eight months ago. They said this iteration has resonated much more with their diners.
They didn’t revisit the idea of cooking the clams on the pie until their December fundraiser, “12 Pies of Christmas,” when they invited a dozen Rhode Island restaurants to each cook a special pizza for one night only, benefiting the Amos House.
One of those restaurants they partnered with was Oberlin. For the clam pizza they were collaborating on, Oberlin chef Benjamin Sukle had a specific request to cook the clams on the pie.
“‘He was like, ‘I want to put the littlenecks on raw,’” Andreozzi said. “I hadn’t thought about it since day one.”
They had already experimented with clambake-inspired calzones, stuffing the dough with littlenecks in their shell, garlic, and tomato sauce, which the diner would peel open to eat. And now, with the oven cooler, and the littlenecks the perfect size, they found the sweet spot. Before the night of the collaboration between Pizza Marvin and Oberlin on Dec. 15, Andreozzi remembered telling Sukle “this was going on the menu as the ‘Chowdah Pie,’ the new way.”
Andreozzi said what excites him the most about using clams from Andrade’s Catch is seeing the boat unload when he pulls up to the store. It’s something that speaks to the way Pizza Marvin and Nana’s approach their cooking.
“What really excites us, and excites our guests, is the ability to source things that we’re very proud of that are delicious as well,” Andreozzi said. “For us, the ‘Chowdah Pie’ is highlighting those amazing potatoes and clams — that’s something we’re very proud of.”
Similarly for Wayman, he said he always thinks about products first. “It’s like, what can I source that’s near me and makes sense?” he said. “It’s about using as many locally sourced ingredients as we can.”