After whetting Boston appetites for the past year, the famed Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana said it has finally decided to open its first local restaurant, in Chestnut Hill, this fall.
Pizza-loving Bostonians — even competitors — were salivating Friday over the news about the New Haven institution's plans to move into the area.
"I'm all for it," said Todd Winer, the chef-owner of the Neapolitan-style pizza restaurant Pastoral in Fort Point. "Pepe's pizza is a tried-and-true classic."
Commonly called Pepe's, the legendary pizzeria is known for thin-crust pies baked in coal-fired brick ovens. Winer stops in New Haven for the famous white clam pie, made with fresh clams, grated cheese, olive oil, garlic and oregano, on every road trip to New York.
The gourmet pizzas are so tasty they've been named among the best in the country, and often number one, by publications including Zagat, Food & Wine, USA Today, and Time magazine. Bostonians have been known to drive to Connecticut and wait in line for hours just for a taste.
"They have a community of total fanatics because the pizza really is that good," said Ani Collum, a partner at the Norwell consultancy Retail Concepts.
Pepe's was founded in New Haven's Wooster Square in 1925 by Italian immigrant Frank Pepe. It has since grown to seven locations in Connecticut and one in Yonkers, N.Y.
The restaurant first confirmed it was eyeing Boston real estate last March. In July, the Fireplace restaurant in Brookline's revealed Pepe's was taking over its location but reversed course two months later and elected to stay put.
Now Pepe's said it will transform a 3,200-square-foot, 85-seat space in the Chestnut Hill mall, which was last occupied by Papa Razzi in June 2013. The company is also building one of its signature ovens to fit the restaurant.
Landing the first local Pepe's is a coup for the mall, said retail and restaurant experts. The pizzeria is sure to become a destination for diners, who spill into the mall after dinner or end up eating at other establishments if they have to wait too long for a table.
But malls also present challenges for restaurants. Rent is typically high and foot traffic is slow on weekdays and generally seasonal in nature, said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at the food industry research firm Technomic.
Part of the charm of Pepe's New Haven location is its original 90-year-old brick-faced building, Collum said. It might be difficult to maintain the same authenticity in a mall.
"Otherwise it becomes a watered-down version of a really good concept," Collum said.
Analysts compared Pepe's to Santarpio's Pizza and Regina Pizzeria. And for its part, Regina says "the more the merrier."
"It's only competitive if you don't believe in your product and you don't believe you have a quality product," said Anthony Buccieri, Regina's chief operations officer and a 40-year veteran of the company. "They do their thing and we do our thing."
A Boston favorite, Regina opened its Thatcher Street pizzeria in the North End in 1926, making it just one year younger than Pepe's. The restaurant now has 19 locations in Massachusetts, two in New Hampshire, and one in Connecticut.
Pepe's did not respond to requests for comment Friday. The company previously said it was considering many Boston-area locations.
"The Pepe Family couldn't be more excited about opening in Chestnut Hill," said Gary Bimonte, the grandson of Frank Pepe, in a statement. "It's a great area with savvy diners who will appreciate world-class pizza in their hometown."