Spreading the Sauce
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They stood hungry, eager and bundled in winter coats and ski hats, lined out the door on the last day of January, some 50 men, women and children waiting for entry into one of Connecticut’s culinary meccas, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana.
This wasn’t the legendary Wooster Street restaurant in New Haven, however, where long lines grow like spring flowers all year round. This was Pepe’s newest outpost, 35 miles northwest in a Danbury strip mall on Federal Road minutes off I-84. The 3,400-square-foot restaurant, which seats 76, is the sixth Pepe’s to open since the 85-year-old family-owned business embarked on an expansion plan six years ago. The first to open outside New Haven came in 2005 in Fairfield. A year later Pepe’s opened another in Manchester, then at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, and another in Yonkers, N.Y. A seventh likely will open in Stamford in late 2012; and an eighth is said to be on the radar screen for Westerly, R.I.
True Pepe’s fans, who in some families date their allegiance back four generations, care about only one thing: Can the satellite locations bake pies as heavenly as the ones from Wooster Square, the Italian neighborhood where founder Frank Pepe started out in 1925? From a business standpoint, too, that was and remains the critical question—could the company retain product quality for a pie some have hailed as “the best pizza in the world”?
Restaurant critics who’ve reviewed multiple Pepe’s have been enthusiastic. Food critic Michael Stern, whose Roadfood books and website (Roadfood.com) focuses on great regional specialties across the nation, admits he was prepared to not like the pie he ate at the first new Pepe’s outpost in Fairfield, about 40 minutes from his Connecticut home. “I’ve spent my career celebrating unique, one-of-a-kind restaurants, and the thought of Pepe’s proliferating was just horrible,” he says. Yet the pizza he ate, from the original tomato pie to the famous white clam, he admits, “was every bit as good as Pepe’s in New Haven on a good day.”
Former restaurant critic Greg Morago, who wrote for The Hartford Courant, had the same doubts before trying the Manchester’s Pepe’s, tucked away across from the Buckland Hills Mall in a tiny shopping center it shares with a La-Z-Boy furniture store. But he was nearly delirious in his review: “The pizza is magnificent,” he wrote in a 2007 review. “The same charred, chewy crust; the same sweet slather of vivid tomato sauce, the same luscious melt of blistered cheese.”
How Pepe’s has managed to duplicate its unique, thin-crust Neapolitan pizza could be a business school case study. It began, family members and company officials insist, with a firm mission: They wouldn’t open a new store until they were convinced its pizza matched the New Haven product. That meant no timetable to open x-number of stores in y-number of years, but just getting it right. To achieve that requires a multilevel effort, replicating the famous coal-fired brick oven, training employees, using the same products (imported Italian tomatoes, the same Pecorino-Romano mix on certain cheese pies), and achieving something of the same look and feel at each new Pepe’s. Each proudly displays the same black-and-white photos of the early years, the same interior color scheme including white tile kitchens, menus, booths, signs (“Tomato pies made to order”), even the same glasses from which to drink Foxon Park soda, served at Pepe’s since 1925.