Frank Pepe's Clam Pie Named Best Pizza in America
Get it in Yonkers. Plus Michel Chapoutier, a tasty new pop-up, and Electic's superb corn soufflé.
Frank Pepe, Best Pizza in America: 10 Things to Know
New Haven style pizza—it’s a thing. I’m still in the process of trying a different pizzeria (and beer) each time I go there. This type of Neapolitan pizza is traditionally made in a coal-fired oven, where intense heat produces a crisper, flatter, chewier crust. And a “plain” pie does not have mozzarella.
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana originated the style in 1925, and four years ago they opened a branch in Yonkers, bringing it to New York for the first time. Their white clam pie in New Haven, already iconic, was just named Best Pizza in America by The Daily Meal—and they also make it right here on Central Avenue.
I had a chance to talk with Gary Bimonte, a grandson of Frank Pepe himself. While we sat at a sunny booth and my daughter and I chowed down on the original and clam pies, his favorites, I learned a thing or two—or ten:
- They’re hoping to open a few more branches in Westchester! (There are seven locations total, six in Connecticut. Don’t worry, Mamaroneck, I put in a good word.)
- The Yonkers location, once decades-old Ricky's Clam House—remember that?—was previously a speakeasy. ("Ricky's Speakeasy,” Bimonte jokes. I see an ad for it as Ricky’s Hyde-A-Way.) Clam House "Ricky" is still landlord. And clams are still under the roof (which speaks to the history of clams as an East Coast road food).
- Urban legend has it that the clam pie, a ’60s invention, came about because Frank Pepe was allergic to cheese and tomatoes. Not so: it was the suggestion of a nearby pushcart vendor of clams on the half shell, which the restaurant already served as an appetizer.
- The seafood move wasn’t unprecedented: the only pizza Pepe originally made besides plain was topped with anchovies, as in his native Naples, and anchovies continued to be available during the Depression (salted, in a barrel). Pepe even had tuna pizza for a while.
- The Yonkers clams are sourced from the same Long Island Sound locale as those in New Haven. Ingredients and procedures are strictly consistent among branches, and the ovens are replicas of the one in New Haven, down to the iron doors cast from the original. I haven’t tried this yet, but the Slice bloggers booked it from Yonkers to New Haven one day to do their own “scientific” research, proclaiming the clam pie, lush with garlic and freshly shucked clams, to be particularly comparable. Of course, the debate rages on.
- The flour? “Pepe’s flour,” milled to their specs (not sayin’). The tomatoes? San Marzano, of course; a family member keeps an eye on the farms in Italy. I remark how fresh the tomato tastes. “We inspect each lot. Farmers who get to the packing plant first get packed first, then the plant gets backed up and the tomatoes sit out in the sun.” They also have a seasonal fresh tomato pie that people love.
- The “original” pie has no mozzarella because mootz wasn't popular in 1925. (It does have a grating of Pecorino Romano cooked into it, and it’s absolutely delicious.) When mozzarella came on the scene several years later, it was called a "cream of cheese,” and the menu offered, “cream cheese pizza.”
- Surprisingly, Pepe is currently tweaking its ovens. (How? not sayin’.) The oven at Pepe’s original, older location dates to the 1880s (from its days as a bread bakery) and is still in use, with some replacement parts.
- In 1936, the building’s owners ousted Pepe to open their own pizzeria, The Spot—so Pepe’s moved next door. Decades later, Pepe’s bought back the location, now called Frank Pepe’s The Spot. Sally's, a friendly rival, was started by Frank’s nephew Sal, with his blessing. Modern Apizza, the last one I tried? “I think their oven runs on oil,” Bimonte says.
- The girl in the 1945 photo on their menu, now in her 80s, recently came in and identified herself. Her name is Anna Brazil, and she lived next door.
My daughter and I finished most of both pies. “Yummy clam,” she said. I checked my watch: we could still make it to New Haven in time for dinner.
Michel Chapoutier Wine Tasting Lunch at Savona
November 16, Noon to 2:30 pm; $105
Don't miss this rare opportunity to have lunch with one of the world's top winemakers and wine personalities, Michel Chapoutier, hosted by Zachys at the fabulous Savona. Chapoutier took over his family's struggling vineyard at 26 and transformed it into one of the leading names in the Rhone Valley; he’s known for a penchant for granitic soil, biodynamic production, and single-variety wines, and was the first to print Braille on wine labels. You could just buy a bottle of Chapoutier wine, most over $100, or you could head to this lunch, a relative bargain featuring five courses with eight wine pairings. From 2:30 to 4:00, join Chapoutier at Zachys for a complimentary tasting of his wine plus other crème de la crème selections. The lunch is expected to sell out quickly, so make reservations now.
Taste of Thanksgiving at Stew Leonard’s
November 16 and 17, 11 am to 4 pm; free
Have you heard of Stew Leonard's “Thanksgiving pie” (which debuted last year)? This turducken of pies, which weighs in at three pounds, comprises seven layers of Thanksgiving: mashed potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, green beans, roasted turkey, and gravy, topped with a country-style stuffing crust. If you want to taste it for yourself, head to the Yonkers store's annual Taste of Thanksgiving, where you can also sample many of their classic dishes: fresh turkey roasted with apple, orange, yellow pepper, red onion, celery, bay leaf, and Marsala; turkey gravy; home-style stuffing; cranberry sauce (free of high-fructose corn syrup); sweet potato mousse; and mashed potatoes whipped with Stew Leonard's fresh milk. Chefs will be on hand to answer questions; elastic-waist pants recommended.
The Great American BBQ Co. Pop-up Restaurant
Through November 30, 11:30 am to 10 pm; no reservations
The Great American BBQ Co., catering arm of Sam's of Gedney Way, has opened its first pop-up restaurant in a country music playin’ tent-like space next to Sam's, closing out the season with pit master Pancho "Villa" Diaz’s authentic barbecue—rubbed, hardwood smoked, and slow roasted on the premises. Main courses come with yummy corn pudding, baked beans, and a buttered biscuit; try the Taste It All sampler of St. Louis ribs, pulled pork, chicken, and braised beef brisket (salt/pepper/brown sugar crust, Texas style charred tomato-onion jus). Smaller dishes include sandwiches, salads, some seafood, and a hearty potato and corn "chowda" with bacon, cheddar, and scallions. There’s a full bar, pitchers of draft beer, and dessert, if you have room. If we like these folks, they’ll come back from May through November next year.
Corn Soufflé at Eclectic
At this brand-new luncheonette in New Canaan, CT, just over the border, Chef Robert Milano is cooking up a high-quality mix of melts, soups, and other dishes that draw from his experience with diverse traditions. But perhaps the most unusual is the soufflé des maïs (corn soufflé), which comes in three variations: plain; pulled pork with sweet and spicy pepper aioli topping; and honey ham and white cheddar with brown sugar poppy seed glaze. My friend and I tucked into the plain, which strikes just the right balance of substance vs. fluff and corn kernels vs. mush. Along with a cup of their tomato bisque (soufflés and melts come with tomato bisque, sweet potato hash browns, or salad), it makes a delightful fall lunch.