Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana

Review by: Jane & Michael Stern

At Pepe’s, the greatest (and original) of the pizzerias on New Haven’s Wooster Street, you walk into a room with an open kitchen in back where white-aproned pizza men enact a ritual originated by Frank Pepe in the 1920s: bombs of dough are flattened on a marble table, clouds of spice are strewn in an instant, and long wooden bakers’ peels are used to inject pizzas deep into the coal-fired oven. It is a hypnotic scene, untouched by time or fashion.

Crust is what makes a Pepe’s pizza outstanding. It is Neapolitan style — thin but not brittle, with a real bready flavor. Cooked at high temperature on the brick floor of the ancient oven, it is dark around its burnished gold edge, and there is a good chew to every bite. The pizza men aren’t too fussy about scraping the oven floor, so it is likely the pizza’s underside will be speckled with burnt grains of semolina and maybe even blotched by an oil spill where another pizza leaked, all of which give the mottled oval a kind of reckless sex appeal that no tidy pie could ever match.

Frank Pepe, New Haven pizza’s Zeus, started very simply, selling pies that were nothing more than tomato with a few pinches of anchovy. To this day, Pepe’s premier pizza is made without mozzarella. It is called a white clam pie, and it is nothing but crust strewn with freshly-shucked littleneck clams, olive oil, garlic, oregano, and a dash of grated cheese. Without a mozzarella mantle, the dough develops wicked resilience, its mottled surface frosted gold. Mozzarella with onion (but no tomatoes, and perhaps a bit of garlic added) is another long-time favorite, as are the more traditional configurations with tomato sauce, cheese, pepperoni, and sausage. (Pepperoni is especially wonderful, as are freshly-roasted peppers.) Broccoli and spinach are more recent additions to the kitchen’s repertoire; they are well suited to a white pie with mozzarella and garlic. But if you are coming to Pepe’s for the first time, try the white clam pie. It’s Roadfood heaven.

Note: Several other Pepe’s have opened in the Connecticut area, and they are very, very good, even if they don’t have the burnished character of this original.

Directions & Hours

11am - 10pm
  • Monday: 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM
  • Tuesday: 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM
  • Wednesday: 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM
  • Thursday: 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM
  • Friday: 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM
  • Saturday: 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM
  • Sunday: 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM

What To Eat

White Clam Pizza

DISH
Pepperoni Pizza

DISH
Original tomato pie

DISH
Original Tomato Pie with Mozzarella

DISH
Fresh Tomato Pie

DISH

Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana Recipes

Discuss

What do you think of Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana?

3 Responses to “Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana”

Mike Iacoucci

October 19th, 2010

My father-in-law has been raving about this place for years. Being a New Yorker right outside of NYC, I was always extremely satisfied with the pizza I’ve had around me, so I did not see the need to trek to New Haven. Plus my NY pizza arrogance refused me the ability to believe that excellent pizza can be found outside of my area. Having been in CT on business and driving past New Haven, and the fact that I completely respect my father-in-law’s opinions on food, I owed it to myself to stop in.

Once you walk in the door, you would swear you were in a small pizzeria in the heart of lower Manhattan. The place is screaming with old world charm. Right in front of you as you walk in is the infamous coal-burning brick oven, which is one of the most important ingredients in a pizza’s crust. Wood burning does a good job, but the flavor and texture are nowhere near the same.

All I’ve heard about is the clam pizza, but being a simple eater and one who does not eat seafood, I opted for the simple standard – tomato pie with mozzarella. I am a firm believer that substandard pizzerias with inferior food tend to mask their shortcomings with layers of toppings. I always judge pizza quality in its simplest form: crust, sauce, cheese.

After about twenty minutes, the oblong pizza arrives on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper, slices irregularly cut. Maybe it was an off-day, but the center half of the pizza was soggy and limp. I had to eat the first bite or two of each slice with a knife and fork, then pick up and eat the rest, which was top notch! The crust was wonderful. Nothing beats a blackened, charred, outer edge – crispy on the outside, soft and moist inside.

The sauce is the perfect balance of sweetness, and not overly seasoned – very simple flavor, which goes well with the crust. The cheese, I think, was the low point of the three main ingredients. It was unevenly distributed, which caused some slices to be overly cheesy and very soggy. Despite this, the pizza was excellent. I ordered a large for myself, got through about half of it and took the rest home. Even though it was soggy, it was definitely good enough to warrant another visit.

Bottom line – I know their crowning achievement is the clam pie. The tomato pie with mozzarella is very good, but can’t compete with NYC.

Rating on the pie I got:
Crust: A- (only due to the center being soggy – the rest was excellent)
Sauce: A+
Cheese: B+
Overall: A-

Reply

Matthew Lupoli

January 6th, 2009

I was born and raised in North Haven, hence I was raised on New Haven-style pizza (apizza). I am so used to it that when I moved away to college for four years I thought that I would die without eating a slice of it.

I recently went on a taste test with some of my college friends who have never eaten New Haven pizza before. I took all of them to New Haven’s top three: Modern Apizza, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, and Sally’s Apizza, in that order.

I’ve heard stories that the staff get pissed off if you don’t know what you want when they come to take your order, so we decided on what we wanted while waiting for a booth. We went with a mozzarella pie, a white bacon and peppers pie, and a white clam pie. The white clam pie is a personal favorite of mine, but at other pizzerias I’ve always ordered it with the “mootz” on it. I had heard that Pepe’s recommends getting it without the “mootz” because it overwhelms the taste of the clams and makes the pizza too heavy and rich. Plus, this was the way that Frank Pepe originally made it, so I ordered it without the mootz.

Our first pizza, the mootz pie, came out in under a half hour. It has a very nice balance between the sauce and mootz, and there is not too much olive oil. The crust is nice and thin, and burnt around the edges, just the way I like it. The white bacon and peppers came out next. This is a combo that I have enjoyed at other pizzerias and I certainly liked Pepe’s version.

The white clam came out last. I was pretty excited because this was the first time I was eating a white clam pie without mootz. It was incredible! White clam pie without the mootz really is the way to go. I was really able to taste the clams and garlic much better. The only bad thing was that now there wasn’t anything holding the clams on. Be careful when picking up a slice or you might lose half of your clams, as I did when I picked up my first slice. Some Foxon Park white birch beer helped these three pizzas go down nice and easy.

After my friends and I had tasted pizza at all three of the well-known New Haven pizzerias, we decided to rate Modern Apizza as first place, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana as a very close second, and Sally’s Apizza as a not so close third place. Pepe’s pizza is out of this world, but I just think that Modern is slightly better. I must say though that I was mighty impressed by their white clam pie without the mootz. From now on, no matter which pizzeria I go to, that’s how I will order it.

Reply

Jeff Snyder

December 24th, 2005

I could not believe that I actually let my wife talk me into waiting in line outside in the freezing cold for 90 minutues for PIZZA. I am a tough critic, and I was not one bit disappointed. The pizza is heavenly. The best in the world. Worth the wait. I continually make the 45 mile trek to stand outside to have the greatest pizza on earth. Although world famous for their clam pizza, I am a purist and enjoy the pepperoni and cheese. Dripping with oil, burnt pepperoni baked inside the cheese, singing the roof of your mouth with every bite… Uneven slices of pie are served on a cookie sheet, with birch beer or a pitcher of Sam Adams to wash this masterpiece down.

For a real treat, take a peek into the kitchen and watch the masters at work as they insert the pizza on an 8-foot pizza pole into a brick over the size of a volkswagen.

I LOVE IT!

Reply

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