If you've never had New Haven-style pizza, the thing to know about it is that the people who still make it have been making it for a very long time. They call it apizza, which is pronounced, roughly, a-beets — from an old dialect once found among descendants of immigrants from the Amalfi coast circa the early 20th century — and they guard their recipes like family secrets. Frank Pepe, born in the town of Maiori just southwest of Naples, was one of those immigrants: He came to the U.S. in 1909 at the age of 16. His namesake, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, is the oldest pizza parlor in New Haven, Connecticut, and some people — actually, a lot of people — say it's the best.
After a stint in the Italian army during World War I, Pepe married Filomena Volpi in 1919, and in 1925, he opened a bakery — not a pizza parlor — at 163 Wooster Street in New Haven. From there, he would bake apizzas (the two original offerings were tomatoes with grated cheese, garlic, oregano, and olive oil, and one apizza with anchovy) and load them onto a hand cart which he'd push around the neighborhood. He started selling to workers on the streets, but Pepe began to lose track of who had paid him and who hadn't. That's when Filomena suggested Frank sell only to patrons who came into his bakery, and when the bakery became known as the Spot. In 1937, Pepe bought the building next door and opened a bigger, brighter pizzeria. The original, smaller location changed hands a few times in its history, but in the late 1970s Pepe's daughters Elizabeth and Serafina bought back the Spot. It has remained family-owned ever since.
Today, Frank Pepe's has eight locations and is still owned and operated by Frank's grandchildren: Anthony, Francis, Lisa, Bernadette, Genevieve, Jennifer, and Gary. They each play a role in the business, from day-to-day management to bakery production to expansion to business development. But Gary Bimonte has long been the face of the business: "There's nobody in the company that has more consecutive years than me," he says of his 40 years at Pepe. To get a feel for how Frank Pepe has stayed the same — for 90 years — in a pizza climate that is ever-changing, we reached Bimonte by phone.
Congratulations on the 90-year milestone! I think it's safe to say that you grew up in the business. How long have you been working at Pepe?
My grandfather passed away when I was nine years old. I knew him, I had met him, but I wasn't able to learn from him. When I was 12, 13 years old, I learned from the old crew. These were older friends of the family members, [in particular] a gentleman named Louis: His family owned a bread factory on Wooster Street and when that dissolved, he came to work for my grandfather. He actually taught me how to make the dough. I call him my uncle Louie, but he wasn't really related. It's just I have very fond memories of him.
So you started young.
When my grandfather died, it just so happened that — and this is back in 1969, when this was unheard of — my mother had a divorce. She was a single mother. A lot of times when she was working down at the restaurant I tagged along... I'd be down there three days or nights a week. I'd be the kid that was wiping trays and folding boxes and then I started washing dishes as I got a little older. I've been there since I was 12. This is actually my fortieth year.
How are each of the grandchildren involved in the day-to-day operations of the business?
There's seven grandchildren: I have three cousins and three sisters. Two of my sisters are servers in New Haven. My cousin Francis, he's a consultant to the business and he also does research and development of new product. I have an older cousin Anthony, he's a consultant for the business, and I have an older sister who... she has her own career. Myself, I'm also an owner and I'm in charge of quality assurance throughout all of our locations.
Did you always want to run your grandfather's business?
I was born into it. It's something I wanted to do. My mother wanted me to go to college. I went to college for, like, two months. I said, "It's not for me. Let me take a year off." I started working in the business and I never looked back. I actually made pizzas for 20-some years, and I held every job in the company, but then I started managing. Then, when it became too much for me to manage by myself, we hired a consultant, and that's when we started our development company. He suggested we venture out, so that's what we did.
Does anyone in the family still do any of the baking?I have some seasoned pizza makers, but we're always training new people. Years ago I used to be the only one who made the dough in New Haven, before we started our expansion. I was the only one with the dough recipe and then, we decided that if I were to drop dead or got hit by a bus [Laughs], it could be bad. We started to share the recipe. We came up with a confidentiality agreement, and then slowly started to train more bakers.
How many people have that dough recipe today?
Oh, maybe 20, 30 people.
So it's a company secret?
We tried to keep it as close as we can, but can't just train one person... because things happen. The person can't come in. Then I get the call, and I've got to go in at three in the morning. But to expand and grow as a company we have to trust and train people. That's why I'm charge of quality control and not really baking any more.
Why did you decide to expand, and was this a universal decision among the family?
I'm going to say yes. On the record, I'm saying, "Yes, everybody wanted to" [Laughs]... We were looking for an exit plan. I'm the youngest: I'm 55 now, so I was 45 then. We were looking for an exit strategy. What are we going to do? One restaurant isn't going to take care of all seven families.
"We're hoping to have 20-30 stores in the Northeast... we're working on a store every 18 months."
That's where our consultant/CEO came into play, and he goes, "Have you guys ever tried to replicate this outside of town?" We said, "No." An investor came forward willing to put up the money. We didn't know what was going on. We had our oven blueprinted... we found the location in Fairfield [Connecticut], and that was our first venture out. It was a huge success. We had our growing pains for years. Fairfield wasn't great right off the bat but we learned, we adapted. We overcame and now as we're opening up our next location, we have the oven layouts. We made tweaks to the design and now we're not looking back. We're hoping to have maybe 20-30 stores in the Northeast.
What's the timeline for that like?
We're working on a store every 18 months. A store every year and a half. We're recently putting together our Boston location. It's in Newton, Mass. and we're hoping to do three, four, possibly five locations in the Boston Metro area. We might do one more location in Connecticut — possibly Stamford or Darien — and then we might look around Westchester County. We have one in Westchester County in Yonkers that's doing very well, and we'll see what happens from there.
Do you have any thoughts about opening in New York City proper?
I think we're going to stay more in the suburbs. We're trying to follow New Haven's demographics, the university town-type thing. That's where we're leading toward. We're going to try to stay near universities.
Why do you think people still line up outside Frank Pepe even though there's a lot of competition?
I still feel we offer the best product, the best-quality product we can — because that's the way my grandfather did it. We don't cut any corners. We use mostly imported ingredients and we've even gone as far as to have our flour and oil, the sausage that we use — it's all private label. They all have Pepe's label on it. It's proprietary. The sausage recipe we've been using for 45 years.
What about the clams for the clam pie?
Our clams are freshly shucked in-house — during the summertime, maybe some 80 to 90 bushels a week, and those are 60-pound bushels. It's a lot of clams. That's just in New Haven, not to mention all the other stores. [Clam-shucking] was one of my first jobs. It was when I started working at factories. I was a dishwasher, and then I cut clams and I really enjoyed cutting clams. As a matter of fact, my uncle who ran the business after my grandfather died had to pull me out of cutting clams to start making pizzas. Because he said he didn't me to waste my hands on cutting clams. When I show the guys how to bang out pizzas they go, "Holy jeez, look at that." They're going like, "You make it look easy," just because I got big hands.
So rumor has it that between you, Sally's, Modern, and Bar there's some competition but that you all communicate from time to time. Is that true?
Absolutely. Well, just between us and Sally's because they are our family. It's family. Salvatore Consiglio was Frank Pepe's nephew, and he learned how to make pizza from his uncle at The Spot location. Then when Frank Pepe wanted to open up his own location... When he moved to the larger location, Sal Consiglio said, "Okay, I'm going to open up my own place," and he went, "Go ahead. See you later. You know do what you got to do." The same company that built the ovens in the larger location built the oven at the Sally's location. That was between 1936 and ‘38.
What about some of the other places like Modern? Do you guys talk?
No, I have no reason to talk to them or even go in there. I don't eat pizza really beside ours. A lot of people go to all of the places. We have people that if they can't get into Pepe's, they can't get into Sally's they'll go to Modern. They'll go to Bar. It's all good, because it's good for business, and that's what it should be.
How often are you at the other locations?
I try to visit within two weeks. I'll visit every location at least two to three times a month.
It's a lot of traveling.
It's been 90 years, you've expanded, and you're still a family-owned business. Do your children and your cousin's children want to take it over?
No. They all have their own interests. Because... I think they've seen what we've gone through. It's hard work. Kids nowadays, they don't want to work [Laughs]. You know what I mean? They don't want to work nights, weekends. Especially weekends. Weekend nights? Come on. They want to party.
Are you looking to sell the company?
No, this is going to stay in our family, and then when we're all gone, Frank Pepe's legacy will live on. Hopefully we'll have people in place to keep it going the way it's going. I'm looking forward to the hundredth anniversary.
Do you think you'll expand beyond the Northeastern U.S.?
No telling. We were approached from people in Vegas maybe five years ago, but they only wanted to open one location. We said, "Well, we want to open up half a dozen stores." We can't spend that kind of energy just to open up one location out there. It's got to be done just so. Because you have to bring out the management team, and it's not cost effective, but we do get requests. We get requests quite often to expand beyond the Northeast. Who knows; it's possible. We'll see. Don't know what the future holds.