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!
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.