A peasant meal brought from 19th century Italy evolved into New Haven’s famous white clam apizza, praised as an ‘intoxicating combination of romano cheese, fresh garlic, olive oil, parsley, and clams atop the chewy and charred oblong pies.’
The legend of the white clam apizza’s founder, Frank Pepe, was celebrated with a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., in 2004 called Pepe’s New Haven pizzeria a ‘thriving community treasure.’
It started in the 1920s, when Italian immigrants sold their wares from carts at an open-air market in New Haven. The vendors were hungry and, in the winter, cold. Frank Pepe made four or five flatbread pizzas and carried them on his head through the streets. When he reached the market, he put the pizzas down on a box. The hungry vendors bought the hot pizza.
Frank Pepe couldn’t read, though, and had a hard time keeping accounts. Born April 15, 1893 on the Amalfi coast in Italy, he immigrated to New Haven in 1909. He spoke no English. Like many poor Italian immigrants, he settled in New Haven’s Wooster Square because it offered jobs. As many as 5,000 people worked in Wooster Square’s shirt and dress factories. Other immigrants opened small shops in the district’s once-grand old homes.
Frank Pepe got a job in a bakery, making apizza from old bread and selling it at the open-air market on his own time.
He eventually started his own bakery, delivering bread from a cart. His lack of education made it hard for him to account for his income and expenses. Two crucial decisions led to the eventual birth of the white clam apizza: He married the literate, English-speaking Filomena, and he focused on the apizza business, where his customers came to him.
In 1925, Frank and Filomena began making two kinds of apizza (pronounced ‘ah-beets’). One was a simple charred flat bread with a cooked sauce of hand-crushed tomatoes – the Original Tomato Pie. The other had anchovies.
For 12 years they sold apizza from 157 Wooster St. with a small crew of family members. Frank’s contributions to the community during the Great Depression earned him the nickname ‘Old Reliable.’
In 1937, Filomena and Frank Pepe bought the building next door at 163 Wooster St. and moved to the apartment above it with their two daughters, Elizabeth and Serafina. Today, that building is still home to Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletena.
Modern Apizza opened nearby three years earlier, and in 1938, Frank Pepe’s nephew Sal Consiglio started his own pizzeria two blocks away. That family feud spilled out into the streets of New Haven and beyond. People argue over which has the best apizza. Frank Sinatra, for example, liked Sal’s, while Ronald Reagan preferred Pepe’s.
Sally’s Apizza rounded out the ‘Big Three,’ which, along with the term ‘apizza,’ define New Haven style pizza.
What Defines New Haven Apizza?
Eater calls it ‘a hotter, crispier, and dirtier descendant of Neapolitan style pie.’ New Haven apizza is left in intensely hot ovens longer than most pies, which blisters and chars the crust. Refrigerated dough is allowed to ferment overnight and then warmed to room temperature. That gives it a more nuanced flavor and chewier crust than most other pizzas.
Exactly how Frank Pepe invented the white clam pizza is unclear, though it is certain he invented it. “It was most likely an organic inspiration,” reads the website. Pepe’s also served raw littleneck clams on the half shell from Rhode Island as an appetizer , and some time in the mid 1960s they ended up on top of white pizzas.
Fans and critics say there’s nothing like it.
Success spawned more pizzerias, in Fairfield, Waterbury, West Hartford, Manchester and Danbury, Conn., at the Mohegan Sun Casino and in Yonkers, N.Y. They’ve also opened in Warwick, R.I., and in the Massachusetts cities of Burlington, Chestnut Hill and Watertown,
Another Local Favorite
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana serves another vintage homegrown favorite: Foxon Park sodas. They are still made the way they were in 1922, when Matteo Naclerio founded the company in East Haven. Conn. Real cane sugar is used instead of the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens most sodas. Foxon Park, still in the Naclerio family, attributes its early success to home delivery and unusual, varied flavors such as White Birch Beer, Gassosa and Iron Brew.
Frank Pepe died Sept. 6, 1969. The business remains in the family.
Excitement and Loyalty
On June 24, 2005, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro honored Frank and Filomena Pepe by entering comments in the Congressional Record:
With hard work, countless hours, and dedication the Pepes created a successful business that carried themselves and their extended family through the Great Depression … Pepe’s popularity grew outside the Italian-American community of Wooster Street and for four generations enthusiastic customers have returned with their own families. The excitement and loyalty of their customers has never waned — a truth that is reflected in the long lines of anxious patrons that are a constant on Wooster Street…
Four generations later, the business is still run by family and the walls are still adorned with family photos as well as those of Bill Murray, Meryl Streep, and Matthew Broderick–just a few of the stars who have dined at Pepe’s in the past… It is not just the pizza that makes’ Pepe’s such a special part of our community. It is the history and community spirit of Frank Pepe and his family that has made it a New Haven landmark.
Wooster Square has come up in the world since Frank Pepe delivered bread from a cart. The Wooster Square Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places. To see historic photos of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletena, click here.
With thanks to The Italian-American Experience in New Haven by Anthony V. Riccio and The Definitive Guide to New Haven Pizza by Eater. Exterior of Pepe’s By Krista – frank pepe exterior, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38640336.White clam pizza By Krista – frank pepe clam pie, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38640270. This story was updated in 2021.