Frank Pepe’s and the New Place in my Heart

24 10 2007

I’m reading Jeffrey Steingarten’sThe Man Who Ate Everything“.  In it he mentions that the White Clam Pizza from Frank Pepe’s in New Haven is one of the best pizzas in the country and certainly the best thing in New Haven.  It rang a bell–Frank Pepe’s, wasn’t that the new place that just opened by the Buckland Hills Mall?  The next time I drove past I confirmed that, yes, that was the place and, Holy Shit! look at that line out front!

Not too much later my wife and I had to drive down to New Haven to exchange a piece of our Tobo TV stand at Ikea.  It would be around dinner time and I mapped it out, you could stand outside Ikea and hit the original Frank Pepe’s with a Krumvat, or whatever Ikea would name a rock.  So after shopping we swung over to New Haven’s surprisingly vibrant Little Italy.  We fought our way through the narrow, traffic-choked, one-way street and slowly found our way out front of Frank Pepe’s.   That line that I saw out front of the new Frank Pepe’s by me in Manchester?  To call that a line would be to insult the dignity of the epic queue lined up out front of New Haven’s Frank Pepe’s.  There also appeared to be no parking in Little Italy, but I was pretty sure I passed a spot on the way there so I circled back around to find it.  Sheila was pretty sure it was driveway, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t.  Since it was a driveway and it meant that there was no parking in Little Italy, we gave up on Frank Pepe’s and instead settled on a mediocre meal at Panera Bread, which may or may not have made me sick.

Today I’m reading through some old Hartford Advocates, and there’s an add for Frank Pepe’s with a glowing review from Zagat’s “Frank Pepe’s white clam pizza is one of the best pizzas in the know universe!”  Hyperbole, of course, but damn I gotta try this place.  It wasn’t in the plans tonight, though, I wanted to See Lust, Caution and its last showing was at 7.  Sheila seemed on board till I mentioned that it was 2.5 hours long.  We ditched those plans but then I thought, “hmm, how busy could Frank Pepe’s be on a Tuesday?”  We drove up to find out.

There was a line (dammit), but it wasn’t outside this time.  At least it wasn’t outside until we got in line, we had to wait outside.  We slowly worked our way to the front of the line and I got excited as the waitress headed our way.  The delicious smell of pizza was thick in the air.  And now the waitress would tell us…”We have to shut the oven down once or twice a day to refresh it, It’ll take 45 minutes to an hour for it to heat back up.”  My thoughts lost cohesion for a brief moment.  I wanted to eat there, but I was also already very hungry.  However, we had some errands to run so we’d just do that and return.  A half hour later we returned to a shorter line and quickly got our seat.  We ordered a large Tomato Pie with Mozzarella and some Root Beer.  The pizza, we were informed, would still take about 25 minutes.  The soda was all we had to tide us over.  We were brought a liter bottle of Foxon Park Root Beer, a fun name and a delicious Root Beer, made with real Sugar and not High Fructose Corn Syrup.

From my seat I could see the Pizza Oven.  It was huge–pizza peels that must’ve been ten feet long were used to navigate pizzas through its cavernous interior.  At one point they also opened up the coal door.  Huge blue flames shot out and and licked the white tile walls around it, and beyond could be seen the golden glowing embers of coal.  From this vantage point I could also see when the first pizzas started going back in to the oven.  When the pizzas started coming out, I could see that the Large we ordered was rather…well, Large.   I could also see the blackened crust edges typical of pizzas cooked in coal-fired ovens.  They looked delicious, and the smell in the restaurant was shooting straight into the pleasure center of my brain.

And then, Lo, I did see the Angel floating over from the kitchen, our golden pie delicately draped on a silver platter!  Or maybe she just carried it over on a sheet tray, I dunno, I was pretty excited.  She placed the pizza before us and…boy, was it sliced oddly.  I’ve seen pizzas usually cut in one of two ways: wedges, or squares.  This pizza looked like Zorro closed his eyes and randomly slashed at it.  It did, however, look delicious.  The edges of the crust were black, but only the edge, the rest was a lovely golden umber.  The cheese was well melted with just a few occasional brown bubbles.  I had to will myself to not shovel it into my eager maw.  I didn’t want to burn my mouth and deaden my sense of taste.  I gently eased the slice onto my place–after brutally separating it from the rest of the poorly cut pie.  I cut a piece and readied myself, was it worth the hype?

The crust was crispy, yet chewy–the benefit of the high temp coal-fired oven.  It was thin, but not too thin, just right.  It was perfectly sauced, not too thick–nothing squeezed out, but not dry either.  The flavor of the sauce was also good, not overbearing, not competing with the crust and cheese.  No odd sweetness or overpowering herbs, just a good cooked tomato flavor.  Then the cheese–well melted, not stringy, just the right amount of grease.  The three essential elements of the pizza were in perfect balance and the pizza had an almost buttery quality about it.  It was fantastic, it was worth the hype.  I had no regrets about the long wait or late hours I would up eating it.

I was worried that I might not find good pizza in Connecticut, but instead I found one of the best I’ve ever had.  I may not have had the White Clam Pizza that Steingarten and Zagat rhapsodized over, but I still found something to sing about.  Welcome, Frank Pepe’s, to a special corner of my heart.