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.