Pepe’s in a local mall? Is this a joke?
For months I stayed away from the new Chestnut Hill location, even though the original, legendary Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven is a place I’ve frequented for decades. It didn’t help that amid the hype, early word suggested a staff and oven that were overrun, a pizza that was not quite the same.
I should add that Pepe’s white clam pizza is among my favorite foods on earth. I am not alone.
And so, when I finally entered the new Pepe’s, I did so with anticipation and anxiety. How would it taste? And where would it rank in Boston’s pizza cosmos?
At bottom, pizza is personal. Everyone has a favorite place and often a mouth-stinging memory that’s hard to shake.
One of mine centers on Circle Pizza, a bright little spot on Hanover Street in the North End, circa 1987. Naive New Hampshire guy that I was, I found my first apartment in Boston because of Regina’s. We’d visited there many times when I was a kid. The North End was the only neighborhood I knew. When Circle turned out to be a few blocks closer and never as packed as Regina’s, I ate there often with a girlfriend I loved (painfully).
Circle closed in 2000. Girlfriend gave me the boot. That pizza still knocks around my head.
Peter Reinhart, a baking instructor at Johnson & Wales, writes in his book “American Pie” that there are two kinds of perfect pizza: “contextually perfect and paradigmatically perfect.” The contextually perfect pizza he describes as “perfect because of circumstances of a time and situation.”
So what happens when a contextually perfect pizza achieves paradigmatic perfection? That’s a rarity called transcendence.
In the last year, three new pizzerias have staged incursions — Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, Babbo Pizzeria, and Pepe’s — from, respectively (but not so respectfully), Fort Lauderdale, Manhattan, and, yes, New Haven. There have been other additions and subtractions, too. The time was ripe for a local pizza reappraisal.
In preparation, I checked in with Reinhart, who helped clarify my thinking. “All pizza is good,” he said. “It’s the perfect flavor-delivery system. But a few have broken from the pack to achieve greatness.” That greatness he attributes “80, even 90 percent to the crust. High-quality toppings on an average crust can be interesting, but with a truly great pizza, it’s always something about the crust.”
I set out with this organizing principle: Start with gas-fired ovens, move to wood, end on coal. And eat only the simplest pie: tomato and cheese.
First stop was Santarpio’s, that genuine piece of old-world Boston. It first opened as an East Boston bakery in 1903, and pizza surfaced there in the 1930s. The decor is heavy on legendary boxers — Rocky Marciano, Cassius Clay, Mike Tyson keep watch from the walls — with service equally, wonderfully hard-knuckled. Most people order sausage, lamb, or steak tri-tips to start, which are perfectly grilled in a wood fire near the entrance.
The pizzas at Santarpio’s come in one size, around 15 inches. The cheese has a satisfying sharpness, suggesting a generous hand with Romano over mozzarella, and it’s blotched with tasty caramelized bubbles. The sauce is memorably balanced — sweet and acidic at once — and also nicely in counterpoint with the cheese. All very good until you get to the crust.
The outer rim of a pizza, what Italians elegantly call the “cornice,” some American pie-heads more profanely call “the bones.” If a pizza is truly great, Reinhart maintains, you scarf up the bones. And if a pizza cooks too long — more than 4 or 5 minutes — the crust toughens up. Your oven is likely not hot enough. The bones at Santarpio’s are welterweight-tough and too easy to leave behind. On a pizza-genius scale of 1 to 10, this pie earns a 7.
Across the harbor in the North End, Regina’s presents as another exhilaratingly authentic piece of Boston history. The restaurant seems to vibrate at full capacity at all hours, even on a random Tuesday at 2 p.m. And 91 years in, the pizza here continues to deliver magnificently, though it’s closer to true Neapolitan, according to Reinhart — the crust softer, more pillowy — than the paper-thin crust now considered “Neapolitan” on these shores. (While Regina’s has blanketed the metro region with more than a dozen offshoots, the original magic can never be reproduced. Is authenticity a transferable currency? A visit to the new Pepe’s may tell.)
The cheese manages to be both sharp and milky, the sauce underneath piquant. As at Santarpio’s, the oven at Regina’s is gas-fired, with a brick floor dating back to 1888, first in service of a bakery, then in 1925 for pizzas. This century-plus seasoning is said to deepen the crust’s flavor. But while it’s deliciously tender and chewy, there’s little char. Still, Regina’s makes very close to a great pie — let’s say 8 out of 10.
Char. It’s what pizza connoisseurs consider the mark of a truly great pizza, and it’s difficult to attain if your oven isn’t blasting serious BTUs. There’s also a fine line between well-charred and burnt, requiring a savvy hand at an often-temperamental oven.
The oven at Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca, which opened in 2015, is wood-fired and sits deep in the posh dining room, burning at 900 degrees. A bar with stools skirts the beech- and cherry-stoked fire, offering views of the hyper-focused pizzaiola. The spirit here is less old-style Italian-American, less family affair, more chic Italia. As in: Give me some Campari, a Vespa, and a piazza in Milan.
The pizzas come 11 inches across, so not the size pie you’re likely to share. The crust under the cheese is so thin it would seem to defy the laws of gluten. This may be molecularly impressive, but it translates to prompt wilting in your hand. Please do not make us sup on impotent pizza with knife and fork! Still, the bones are crisp and fantastically chewy, even if lightly touched by char.
It should be noted in the context of the other contenders: The cheese pizza here is a classic margherita, where rounds of milky fresh mozzarella hover like lactose islands on a shallow sea of tomato. Creaminess gained, yes, but lost is the pervasive and sharp cheesy experience one gets with each bite of an American version of Naples. All in all, the Babbo pie ranks a solid 6.
The first Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza was opened in Fort Lauderdale in 2002 by a former Long Islander who recognized the lack of serious pizza in Florida. The operation has since traversed the East Coast and now numbers 53 restaurants. The Reading and Westwood locations, which have quickly become among the top in sales for the company, feel a little like rollicking sports bars with the critical addition of a 900-degree coal oven.
The crust here is cake-flour tender under the cheese, with a perfectly charred cornice and partly blackened bottom. The cheese goes on first. This keeps the crust underneath crisp, yet even with superb sauce ladled on top, there’s a downside. At least half the cheese lurks under tomato, so it never has the chance to achieve that umami-ish caramelization. This is that rare instance where crust outguns topping. Score: 8 out of 10.
Then we come to Max & Leo’s, a relative newcomer. Coal-fired pizza, in particular Pepe’s and Sally’s in New Haven, was the inspiration for brothers Max and Leo Candidus. They honed their craft making pizzas in a coal oven mounted on a trailer, then put down roots, first in Newton in 2012 and more recently Fenway at the end of 2015. They make a tremendous pizza, in a coal oven that tops out at 900 degrees.
I ate this pizza before my final stop and figured I’d found the local gold standard, ranking a near-perfect 9 out of 10. It does everything you want in a pizza: The 15-inch crust pivots between tender and crisp, the sauce aspires to Platonic tomato-ness at the height of August, the cheese plays salty and mellow. And the charring here is expertly managed, with black bubbles rimming the cornice and splotched beneath.
The time to breach Pepe’s had come. The restaurant induces vertigo. Devotees must process the spookily faithful, theme park-esque re-creation of those New Haven booths and impressive white-brick oven, in the hindquarters of an unremarkable mall.
My expectations were not high. Each of the preceding pizzerias had satisfied in its own primal way. But Pepe’s is a notch above. Pizza transcendence — an unapproachable 10 — attained. The cheese gives and takes, flirting between milk and bite, only to be kept in check by a pungent tomato sauce.
But it’s the crust that beats all. It’s at once chewy and tender, soft and crisp. And, most critically, the char on occasion — although not always — powders in your mouth, setting in motion a kind of complex duel, a revelry of flavor and texture that makes for truly spectacular eating.
Shut your eyes and you’ll have no idea that what you’re eating wasn’t forged in that original old coal oven in New Haven. Three times I’ve been back since, including with an hourlong wait on a Saturday night.
Long drives to Connecticut? No longer required. Pepe’s in a mall? We’ll take it, context be damned.
Ted Weesner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.