July 13, 2018

Pepe's pizza sinks in Ocean State

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Coal in the stocking for Pepe's legendary coal-fired pies.

On billboards dotting I-95, it's touted as "America's Best Pizza," reflecting superlatives from the website the Daily Meal.

Maybe they should change the text to, "Best Pizza in 49 of 50 States."

That's because, according to early returns, the newest outpost of Frank Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletano, New Haven's legendary tomato-pie mecca, has been roundly (pizza) panned in a restaurant review [read here] this week in the Providence Journal.

Unlike its conjoined Wooster Street alter ego, Sally's, Frank Pepe's a decade ago embarked on an ambitious program of expanding beyond the Elm City, opening satellite coal-fired Xanadus in Fairfield, Manchester, Danbury and other burgs in the Nutmeg State and beyond, more recently including Yonkers, N.Y. and Chestnut Hill, Mass.

In May, Pepe's ventured into Warwick, R.I., its tenth location. Pandemonium ensued. Photo ops were staged, such as an "official lighting" of the 100,000-pound coal-fired brick oven. The characteristic line of drooling diners began to form outside. Among the hopeful was P-Journal Food Editor Gail Ciampi.

She was not impressed. In fact, she wrote, "I was disappointed."

Ciampi and her party first sampled the plain tomato pie – the control-group pie for the simplicity of its ingredients. "I found it to be lacking in flavor," she observed, "from the dough to the tomatoes to the bland mozzarella cheese." Not a favorable omen.

Next they tried a sausage pie, but "found the meat dry and overcooked." And it wasn't the comestibles alone that failed to evoke rapture. Ciampi also recorded that she "did feel there was no atmosphere in the dining room."

This simply did not compute for the critic, who fondly recalled visits to Wooster Street in her youth. So a few days later she tried ordering takeout for her office to seek more favorable results. "I thought this fair," she observed.

Fair, perhaps, but still foul. Of the seasonal fresh tomato pie, "I couldn't find any fresh garlic or basil on it," Ciampi wrote. Quel horreur! And after a friend sampled the legendary white clam pizza, he concluded he would have been better off driving 90 minutes to Wooster Street for the real thing.

To try to understand the discrepancy, Ciampi phoned Gary Bimonte, grandson of Pepe's namesake and third-generation owner of the business. She asked him what was different in Warwick from New Haven. He said nothing was.

In the end, Ciampi struggled to make sense of it all. She acknowledged that perhaps her past experience had set the bar too high. "Maybe Rhode Island is different because there are many superb pizza offerings," she wrote. "They raise the bar for our dining expectations.

"I don't think Frank Pepe's pizza is bad," Ciampi concluded, "but it lacks soul."

Reach Michael C. Bingham at mbingham@newhavenbiz.com

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