Boston is a complicated pizza town. There are those who book flights from Logan Airport just to eat at Santarpio’s. Some linger in line at Regina Pizzeria in the North End; others throw elbows for a spongy slice around the corner at Galleria Umberto. But there are few pizza parlors that summon both intense nostalgia and ravenous hunger. This might change when 90-year-old New Haven export Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana opens at the Chestnut Hill mall on Dec. 16.
People who grew up in Connecticut feasting on Frank Pepe’s charred Neapolitan pies are a devoted breed, and such fandom has allowed Pepe to expand elsewhere in Connecticut and New York. When news broke that the pizzeria would open its first Massachusetts store, there was rampant speculation: Where would it open? (Not in Brookline, the original proposed spot.) There was fretting: Would it actually happen? And finally, there was firm news: Frank Pepe would open in Chestnut Hill, and industry-watchers counted down.
“This has to be the best news about pizza ever. It could mean folks here could actually taste the real thing,” enthused one Boston Globe commenter on a story announcing the opening.
So why the love for this simple parlor — whose pizzas, especially the signature white clam, have been hailed everywhere from the History Channel to GQ?
“It’s just the combination of everything. We still adhere to my grandfather’s recipe,” says co-owner Gary Bimonte, whose grandfather, Frank Pepe, an Italian immigrant, started the business in 1925. “You get this crunchy burnt flavor, you get the char, and the crust is crunchy and chewy at the same time. You get a symphony in your mouth,” he says.
Pizza is cooked in a 600-degree coal oven (the Chestnut Hill location will have a duplicate of the 1925 original); tomatoes, olive oil, and cheese are imported from Italy. Flour is a proprietary Pepe’s blend. Water is carefully tested to ensure proper quality, though Bimonte declines to delve into specifics. “Competition is fierce. We have to keep our edge. But we’ve kept the same recipes for 90 years. That’s why we’re so successful,” he says.
The Boston branch will be different than other locations, he says, with additional salads and toppings, plus roughly 80 seats and an indoor patio. There are tentative plans for more Massachusetts venues, depending on how this one fares.
Indeed, pizza is a polarizing food, and some diners are initially perplexed by Pepe’s charred presentation. “Our first-time customers don’t appreciate the char. A lot of newbies think the pizza is burnt,” Bimonte says.
Decide for yourself when they open in two weeks. If unsure what to order, Bimonte suggests — surprise — one topped with clams.