There are topics that divide mere mortals so deeply that reason is abandoned and pure passion takes over. Politics. Sports. And, for many of us, pizza.
When New Haven’s Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana opened in Chestnut Hill several months ago, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that the Kardashians ran the place. The anticipation was feverish; the lines were epic. I covered the opening for the Globe. I’ve written about touchy stuff, but the heated comments I received about this coal-fired pizzeria trumped them all. Some people adored Pepe’s. Others preferred rival New Haven parlors like Sally’s Apizza or Modern Apizza. Others marveled, perhaps rightly, at the power of pizza — or “apizza,” in native parlance — to stoke such fury.
Attribute it to a combination of gluttony and romanticism. Frank Pepe, which debuted in 1925, is one of New Haven’s first pizzerias, opened by an Italian baker who didn’t know how to read. Today, Frank Pepe’s charred crust, made with a proprietary dough blend, is legendary. The hauntingly tangy sauce? Lifetimes are spent chasing this dragon. And Pepe’s descendants operate outposts across the Northeast, nine in total.
However, to visit the original Pepe’s is to make a pilgrimage to a coal-fired mecca, worshipping at the altar of 600-degree ovens and sliced mozzarella. Since many Connecticut natives now live in Boston, it’s no surprise that Pepe’s first Massachusetts shop drew attention.
“We go to Pepe’s every time everyone’s home,” says Arlington’s Mike Murphy, who grew up near New Haven. “We’re a Pepe’s family. I never had others. There are big tables, big brick ovens, and we all think it’s the best we ever had. It’s hard to grow up with that and then have nothing in the same class,” he says.
Hey now. I grew up outside Boston, and I have to say that the original North End Regina — chewy, oily, crackly, tangy — is pretty good. But I get it. Ritual is important. You love what you know.
Which led me to wonder: Is the new Pepe’s on par with the original? Could they replicate the oven? (They promised they would.) Could they replicate the atmosphere? (The new branch is at the Shops at Chestnut Hill, a far cry from New Haven’s Wooster Street.) Most important: Could they create fresh memories for the uninitiated, or would this be a nostalgia act?
“They have a ways to go with the charring on the bottom of the pizza. It just takes time, I think, to get the flavor character of the oven. It takes time to get it all right,” says Medford’s Hans Mayer, a Connecticut native who stood in line at the Chestnut Hill Pepe’s on its maiden weekend.
It also takes time to sit down. When I arrived at the new location, tucked across from an eyebrow-threading place, a line snaked past an “outdoor” seating area and toward the mall’s mezzanine. A chipper gent stood before us, hollering numbers. “Does anyone have two people? Just two people?” he pleaded.
“I’m alone!” I yelled shamelessly.
“Right this way, ma’am,” he said, whisking me past the fray and escorting me to a prime patio table, a mere handrail from those salivating hordes — many of whom wielded strollers. I sank sheepishly into my seat.
As a Pepe’s novice, I expected brusque service. You know: near New York, part of the ambiance. No way. I was missus’d and ma’amed by a sweet-faced lad with a thick Midwestern accent.
“Our pizzas take 20 minutes to cook. You should really get a salad, ma’am,” he suggested.
I felt so guilty occupying a table without food that I readily agreed. A bowl of crisp, garlicky Caesar appeared forthwith. I also ordered a Diet Coke. (Rookie mistake, because Pepe’s is known for Connecticut’s Foxon Park soda. I’d learn this later.) Then I requested a large original tomato pie — their signature, dusted with grated cheese — which my waiter deemed reasonable for three. I planned to bring some home, so I concurred.
Twenty minutes later, a majestic silver tray appeared, draped with pizza cut into narrow rectangles. It was bigger than my table. The entire Pepe’s line stared at me. “You should sell some of those slices to people in line,” one bystander suggested. I sank further into my seat.
The sauce was delicious: fresh, sweet, pulpy. The crust was hit or miss. The edges were blackened and crispy, but the middle was soggy. I didn’t mind — the sponginess, akin to Ethiopian injera, sopped up that luscious sauce. Leftovers got solid reviews.
“Would we drive to Chestnut Hill for it? Hell no. Would we happily eat there after being dragged through the Container Store? Yup,” noted a friend who sampled the bounty.
Bottom line: a happy addition to any mall.
Wooster Street in New Haven, where it all began, was a different story. No threading parlors or Container Stores, just humble red-white-and-green storefronts touting scungilli, pastry, and apizza. Pepe’s anchors the block.
“We’d drive to New Haven every couple of months, wait in line for an hour, and then go in. It was a special thing,” says Kristin Marachi, a Fairfield, Conn., native who now lives in Acton.
It’s easy to see why. An enormous sign beckoned from Wooster Street, the kind of thing that must look monstrous to little kids. The line snaked out the door, but it moved. There were two white-tiled dining rooms, packed mainly with families sandwiched into high-backed booths. Black-and-white family photos hung everywhere. Grandparents drank red wine out of juice glasses while kids hoisted slices above their heads. Waitresses — years of service emblazoned on their Pepe’s jerseys — chatted up regulars.
“I know someone with your last name! Hey, how’s your cousin?”
Ah, apizza: the great equalizer. And it really was great. Their classic white clam pizza was studded with rotund bivalves and sharp shards of garlic. Just don’t ask for red sauce on the side.
“We don’t do that,” I was told. Our waitress suggested half clam, half original tomato as a compromise. We dug in, fingers smudged with soot, until the silver sheet pan was picked clean. Perfect. This time, I was smart enough to order a glass bottle of local Foxon Park birch beer, pungent and biting.
I walked back toward the street — past the hordes, which looked quite similar to the Chestnut Hill hordes — and noticed a squat building next door in a weedy parking lot. This was the Spot, a smaller Pepe’s outpost on the original 1925 site.
“This is where the original oven is,” a waitress told me when I wandered in. “Do you want to sit down?”
I shook my head, full as I was of clams, crust, and pulpy tomato sauce. The dining room was nearly empty.
Why no lines? I couldn’t believe it. I later asked Murphy, the Pepe’s loyalist, why more people weren’t at the Spot. He laughed.
“You’re making a pilgrimage. You’re psyching yourself up to wait in line. You want the real experience,” he says.
I understood. You want to feel united by something bigger than just crackly pizza. It’s a shared moment, the same reason we flock to political rallies or baseball games.
That’s why, as long as Chestnut Hill packs in the crowds, it will still feel almost like home. Never mind the dough.