The politics are, to use a technical phrase, a little whack. You, the peon in this unequal relationship, are the one who’s supposed to make the pilgrimage to pay your respects to the king. The king is not supposed to make a trip to you, in a shopping mall, no less, like he’s some seasonal Santa trying to sell a fantasy to the young and naive.
For as long as I can remember, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana was one of those places that loomed large in my imagination, a pizza icon that I knew I would visit, no questions asked, the first time I ever ventured anywhere near New Haven, Conn. Frank Pepe wasn’t just a man or a brand or a destination. Frank Pepe’s is a legend, a pizzeria born nearly a century ago, with roots in the old country but a symbol of America’s 20th-century pizza craft. Frank Pepe’s has made just about every list of the best pizzerias in the country, at least the ones that knew what they were talking about.
I made my first trip to the original Frank Pepe in the Wooster Square neighborhood in New Haven a dozen years ago while working for another newspaper. It was a research trip and, as such, didn’t afford any moments in which you could just relax into the experience — and absorb both past and present, sensing the connection between the two. I returned to Pepe some years later. I was by myself this time. I remember how lucky I felt to grab a table without waiting in that famous Pepe’s line.
By the time I visited Pepe’s in 2010, the pizzeria had already started to expand, though its reach was limited to Connecticut — and one gutsy foray into a historic Italian American neighborhood in Yonkers, N.Y. Yet I never would have predicted that Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana — with apizzas (pronounced a-beets) so inextricably tied to Wooster Square and the Italian immigrants who settled there — would soon open a location in South Florida, in a 27-acre mixed used development that bills itself as “Broward County’s premier lifestyle community.”
Then again, I never would have predicted that my next visits to Pepe’s would occur in the Westfield Montgomery mall in Bethesda, where the pizzeria sits across the hallway from a Cheesecake Factory. I haven’t yet figured out the proper response — shock, resignation, sadness, uncontrolled chortling — to the fact that I can bite into a pizza baked in a handmade, coal-fired oven just steps from a restaurant where I can order Dynamite Shrimp off the SkinnyLicious® menu.
Bear with me here. I’m providing this context not just for comic relief or to demonstrate how the capitalistic impulse can, given half a chance, undermine the character of an American institution. No, I’m providing this context to underscore the minor miracle that occurred when I tasted my first pie from Frank Pepe’s in Bethesda: I felt the big-box walls collapse and I was back on Wooster Street, my fingers blackened with ash and my nostrils filled with the scent of garlic and briny littleneck clams. The relief I felt was palpable. I was in no mood for regicide.
That this mall-based Pepe’s adheres so closely to the original is no accident. The Frank Pepe’s Development Co., the entity responsible for expanding the king’s empire, remains a family-run business, though it has brought on investors. Every new location is company owned. There are no franchisees, a business model that mimics the one followed by In-N-Out Burger, another American institution that has expanded beyond its base.
The next Frank Pepe’s will be located in Alexandria, the 14th in the growing chain. The goal, says Stephen Molampy, director of operations for the development company, is to open 25 stores by 2025. One of the keys to Pepe’s consistency, from store to store to store, is its ability to faithfully re-create the coal-fired oven from the Wooster Street location. The company hired engineers to create a blueprint of that original, custom-made, 100,000-pound brick oven, so crews could build ones just like it at other locations.
“When we started this off, the main question was, ‘How do we replicate this oven?’” Molampy tells me. “It doesn’t exist anywhere. It was built by hand.”
Crews even spent a couple of weeks seasoning the oven, burning thousands of dollars’ worth of sausage, pepperoni, oil and dough in the chamber, all to lock those classic flavors into the bricks. It’s sort of like wok hei, but for pizza ovens, an alchemy of ingredients and cooking vessel that produces flavors impossible to replicate any other way.
All the hallmarks of a Pepe’s pie are there at the mall: the thin, blistered crust that’s crispier and chewier than the soft, 00-flour versions of Neapolitan pizza that the D.C. area has grown accustomed to; the sprinkles of blackened farina on the underside of the crust, as if your slice were dragged through the ash of an open hearth; the unmistakable interplay between the salty, crackerlike crust and the bubbles of bitter char that form around the edges; the sweet-tart flavors of freshly milled Italian plum tomatoes cooked in a 600-degree oven.
This crust is the base for some of my favorite pizzas anywhere: the original tomato pie with grated Pecorino Romano, a testament to minimalism, which should be consumed without mozzarella (or mootz, as they say back on Wooster Square), no matter how many times the server may ask if you want it; the spinach, mushroom and Gorgonzola round, in which the blue cheese and shrooms lock into place, fungus on fungus; and, of course, the white clam, the signature pie at Pepe’s, a combination that many have tried, and failed, to replicate.
Unlike the behemoth across the hallway, Frank Pepe’s in Bethesda serves only a handful of items: pizza, salads (the namesake bowl with its tart balsamic vinaigrette is the perfect counterbalance to those leaden carbs), Foxon Park sodas (white birch all the way) and a few desserts, including a limoncello mascarpone that ends the meal on a sweet note.
The concise and precisely executed menu is a reminder that, though the pizzeria may be expanding far from its base, Frank Pepe still knows who it is.
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
7101 Democracy Blvd., inside Westfield Montgomery mall, Bethesda, Md., 301-304-7373; pepespizzeria.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Prices: $2.50 to $35.75.