Frank Pepe's pizza is known today across the southern New England area for its traditionally crafted pies and utilization of high-quality ingredients, but that tradition began at the turn of the 20th century with one man’s hard work and persistence.
Now, nearly 100 years after Frank Pepe opened his first pizzeria in New Haven, Conn., his descendants have ensured his textbook example of the American Dream will continue for many years to come.
“Back in the day there was a lot of pizza places in New Haven and there still are. Every bakery sold pizzas when he started,” said Gary Bimonte, grandson of Frank Pepe. “My grandfather always served a good product and used top quality ingredients.”
Pepe immigrated to America from Italy as a teenager in the early 20th century. Shortly thereafter, he found himself in fatigues fighting his former countrymen in the Italian Front of World War I. When he got home to Connecticut, he started working for one of those aforementioned bakeries, where he flattened the dough and sold his handcrafted pizzas.
In 1925, Pepe broke out on his own and opened the first Frank Pepe Pizzeria. Some 94 years later and, from the family line operating the restaurant to the ingredients and recipes utilized to make the pies, not much has changed. After the original Pepe passed, his two daughters took over operations of the establishment until they reached their 90s. Now the seven grandchildren, including Bimonte and his cousin Francis, are at the wheel.
“We still adhere to my grandfather's recipes for his dough and use the finest imported ingredients we can find,” Bimonte said. “We’ve been using the same sausage for the last 50 years, the same pepperoni for about as long, the same imported cheeses, we’ve imported the tomatoes – all top shelf stuff.”
Certain elements of the pizza recipe are so closely guarded that Bimonte was reluctant to even reveal which region of Italy the cheese comes from. He did say that due to their long-standing relationship with the cheese maker, they were able to get a significant deal that would be the envy of other pizza establishments.
Bimonte said that one of the keys to their success, besides stability and adhering to a tried and true tradition, is the coal-fired oven, which he said burns at such a high intensity, dry heat that it “seals in all the flavors.”
“It's just the magic of using the top quality ingredients and cooking in a coal fired oven that sets us apart,” he said.
Bimonte has been working to continue the business his grandfather began for nearly 45 years. He is the co-owner and self-dubbed director of quality assurance. He has overseen an expansion of the restaurant into a chain – all adhering to the strict quality requirements of the original – that has led the pizzeria to lay roots in New York, Massachusetts and, as of last summer, right here off Route 2 in Warwick. A location opening up soon in Burlington, Mass. will be the 11th restaurant in total.
Bimonte touted Frank Pepe’s generous rewards membership, which gives a $15 credit on the member’s birthday and allots one point for every dollar spent – with 100 points given upon signing up and 250 points earning a $20 credit. He said in honor of National Pizza Day this Saturday, reward points will be doubled for members.
Bimonte said that even though he has taken a step back in the past few years to focus more on quality assurance and overseeing the operations of the growing business, he still takes great pride in the restaurant and has an unwavering passion for the industry. He sees it as a means to ensure that his hardworking grandfather – a man whom he described as “a very generous and very soft spoken man always willing to lend a dollar to somebody down on their luck” – will always be remembered.
“I can't wait for our 95th anniversary in 2020 and then the 100th after that. I hope I see it,” Bimonte said. “That's why we did this expansion. So that after we're all gone, our grandfather's legacy will live on.”