Monday, August 19, 2013

Heavenly Pizza

The foodie world is a weird one.  We can get all wound up over the sourcing of ingredients, the treatment of livestock, the legal availability of foie gras, or the terrior of a wine.  This is rarified air in an economy where more and more people would just like to eat three good meals a day.  Fortunately, foodies, myself included, can get awfully romantic about a simple pizza.  Pizza truly has become America’s egalitarian food.  It’s available virtually anywhere, as often from a locally-owned place as a national chain, and even in the best pizza places, available at affordable prices.  Seemingly, every region has its own style and traditions and elicits its own passionate support.  (Check out the variety in The Thrillist’s recent list of America’s top 33) Better yet, I must admit to hardly ever having a bad one.  Truth be told, I am pretty happy with a couple $1.25 Totino’s from the freezer section at Safeway.  Pizza taps into a foodie passion everyone has and everyone can talk about. 

But what inspires me to write about pizza or travel to eat a pizza is a particular style.  I get excited about real Neapolitan pizza.  The widely recognized, sometimes disputed history of pizza places its genesis in Naples, Italy.  The native style calls for certain elements, now outlined by legal certification and European Union protection (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana).  To me the key elements are an excellent dough stretched extremely thin by hand only, topped with a simple, fresh tomato sauce, quality toppings, and cooked very quickly at around 900 degrees.  There’s more to it, but this is the essence.  A great Neapolitan pizza will never be perfectly round, will always be very thin, and will virtually always have charred bubbles of crust. 
Unfortunately, I have never been to Naples.  My favorite of the style so far is Assisi, Italy’s Monaci.  In the US this style of pizza has been spreading across the country.  While there are many new places making great Neapolitan pizza, I think we need to begin with the old regime.  In New Haven, Connecticut a Neapolitan pizza has been served since 1925 at Frank Pepe's, and it is wonderful.

Visit Wooster Street, New Haven’s Little Italy and at the halfway point you will likely see a long line next to a parking lot.  You’re at Pepe’s.  At the back of the parking lot (talk to Joey about getting a spot, but odds are slim) you will see a small Pepe’s.  This building houses the original coal-fired pizza oven, built in 1925, and a beautifully simple restaurant.  This oven served as the model for all following Pepe’s locations – they even took a mold of the door so they could forge exact replicas.  Next door you will find the newer Pepe’s (fear not, it was opened by Frank in 1936) and a slightly nicer dining room.  Both places feature the same menu, same ingredients, and same ovens.  But we aren’t here to look around – we are here for pizza.
The menu is simple and seems to be unchanged in years as there are no faddish additions or twists.  There are 16 ingredients other than tomato sauce and basil and just a few classic combinations including their legendary hallmark, the white clam pizza.  You can get a salad too and wine, beer, and sodas.  But don’t expect a wide selection – pizza takes center stage.  And what a pizza!

On my most recent visit our server, Nancy, got my group of seven set up nicely in the front window of the “newer” location.  Getting there just after 5pm allowed us to sit down immediately.  Be warned, after 6 on a weekday or most anytime on the weekend the line can be quite long.  With a simple, limited menu it was easy to get our order in quickly – a bottle of Chianti, a pitcher of Genesee, a bottle of Foxon Park Cream Soda, and three pizzas – a large with sausage and pepperoni, a medium fresh tomato with anchovies and a small white clam.  In moments Nancy returned with drinks and only about 15 minutes later with pizzas.  The three rectangular trays covered our table - irregular, hand-made, bubbled and charred and smelling like I hope heaven smells.  I had to stop for pictures of these works of culinary art.

 While they looked gorgeous, they tasted truly heavenly.  The tomato sauce was light and fresh, not sweetened or pasty in any way – simple, straight, unadorned, fresh tomato sauce.  The crust, the key to any great pizza, was thin in the middle, but firm enough to withstand being picked up without too much slouching.  The charred and bubbled bits tasted so good, and the kids gave most of theirs to me!  The toppings… well, the sausage and pepperoni looked delicious, but was consumed before I tasted any.  No complaints, though.  The clam pizza, while unlike any pizza I have ever had, was worth the trip alone.  It tasted like the most perfect combination of pizza crust and the sea.  The clams were fresh, not canned, and their juices blended with the crust like nothing I can really describe.  The fresh tomato pizza with anchovies was wonderfully balanced – the anchovies were obviously present but not overpowering.  The tomatoes popped with summer flavor.  Nancy dropped by a few times to make sure all was well - and was it!  While this looked like a huge quantity of food for seven, we had little problem devouring it all, even if I was responsible for more than my share.  These are the things we do in the name of research.
I enjoy pizza too much to name an absolute favorite other than Monaci, and let’s face it, it’s hard to compete with an ancient stone oven and a hilltop view of Umbria.  State-side, lots of places are doing great Neapolitan-style pizza, from Brooklyn’s Grimaldi’s to St. Louis’ The Good Pie to San Francisco’s A16.  Frank Pepe’s history and simplicity gives it a unique place in American pizza history.  For any pizza aficionado, Pepe’s is a must – it’s like visiting Fenway Park for a baseball fan or seeing a show on Broadway for musical fans.  Get to Pepe’s for a taste of pizza history.     
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