First Look (and Behind the Scenes at): Frank Pepe’s Pizza in Yonkers

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I’ve tasted 5 pies from Frank Pepe’s in Yonkers over two visits in the last three days. And I’ve learned a few things:

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1. Frank Pepe’s, founded in New Haven, Conn., in 1925, inspires rapturous loyalty in legions of fans.
2. The pizza is different from the cracker-thin, Brooklyn-style a lot of us are used to.
3. Tradition is important to the owners — the seven grandchildren of Frank Pepe himself. They do things the same way as always, right down to the rectangular sheet pans they serve the pizza on. Even in this, their fourth outpost, they use the same recipes, the same suppliers and the same ovens — even the castings of the old iron doors.
4. Those pizza ovens, fired with coal, are awe-inspiring.
5. The white clam pie — the signature dish at Pepe’s — is an acquired taste.
6. The original tomato pie — the first pie Pepe’s ever served (and it’s still on the menu) — is not an acquired taste. It is light, delicious and instantly endearing from the first bite.

My first visit, Wednesday, was with two friends. I waited in line with everybody else (about 20 mintues) and ordered three pies, some wine, a pitcher of beer and two salads.

Then I went back yesterday and met Francis Rosselli, one of the seven grandchildren. I was allowed to go behind the counter into the kitchen — and I got some pretty cool photos of the whole pizza-making process. (Those are further down in the post.)

First, the Wednesday visit.

We ordered the white clam, a pepperoni and the vegetable:

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But not before waiting 20 minutes outside in a biting wind (the line moved fast):

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Once we were inside, it was warm and comfortable.

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The kitchen is open to the dining room:

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Besides the pizza, the only other dish on the menu is salad:

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It is a mighty fine salad, too. Fresh greens, grated cheese, olives, shredded red cabbage and a tart red wine vinaigrette.

But on to the main event. This is the vegetable pie (small), made made with mozzarella, onions, spinach, broccoli, peppers, mushrooms.

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Here’s the pepperoni, the large size:

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And, in the foreground, the white clam, a medium.

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I found the pizza to be chewier than New York style, but in a good way. There are air bubbles in the crust, and the edges are charred and crispy from the intensely hot oven. The tomato sauce is light. The pepperoni is dry-style and spicy: You can tell its cured by someone who knows what he’s doing. And the clam? Well. I liked the clam. But only a little. It took some getting used to. Not because it wasn’t beautifully made with excellent, fresh clams. It was just a new idea to me at first bite. Some people will call me a heretic, I’m sure. But…

After my second visit, I took two pizzas back for my colleagues. An original tomato and a pepperoni/sausage with mozzarella. Even though they rode along in my front seat for 20 minutes,  and I ate them cold back at the office, they were fabulous. The tomato pie is made with just tomato sauce, oregano, garlic and grated cheese. I think because it has fewer ingredients, it’s lighter and crisper. As for the other pie, the combination of pepperoni (spicy and garlicky) and sausage (sweet and anise-y) is heavenly.

I loved those two pies. I’m sorry I didn’t take photos of them. I’ll just have to go back.

So here’s a look at my second visit:

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The lunch crowd:

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I had a sit-down interview with Francis Rosselli, one of the owners, and my colleague Matthew Brown shot some video. (Look for my story and the video on Wednesday.)

Then I followed a pizza from start to finish. Here is the dough, waiting to become crust:

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Francis tells me the dough is made with a very high moisture content. That’s what gives it its chewiness. He reminded me that his grandfather was originally a bread baker, and that the ovens were made for bread. So the pizza crust is more like a flat, thin baguette — rather than a flatbread.

There’s a big marble table in the center of the kitchen. The marble — besides keeping the dough cool — helps get the dough smooth when it’s kneaded.

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What pastry chef wouldn’t kill for something like that?!

The pizza peels are 14 feet, so they’ll reach to the back of the oven, which is 14 feet by 14 feet square.

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They bring the peel to the center of the kitchen and place the dough on top. Then they build the toppings. This one is half clam, half mozz:

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A little oil on the mozz…

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Then into the oven:

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The ovens are exact replicas to within an inch of the original at Frank Pepe’s in New Haven. CFO Ken Berry tells me they had an old oven boarded up in back of the original location that wasn’t being used anymore. So they went in there with a camera and mirrors and took the thing apart piece by piece, and then put it back together. That’s how they learned how to draw the plans and make the replicas.

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See the pizza? Itis  just to the side of the peel.

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The grid of spaced bricks in back leads to the flue.

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Because Frank Pepe was  a baker, his shop was originally a kitchen, and he delivered the bread. The story goes that he couldn’t read or write, so it was hard for him to keep track of his route. He decided to go takeout only. After that, he started making pizzas.

He wanted to change from a bakery to a restaurant, and so wanted a beer license. But because pizzas were such a newfangeled food, the government in Hartford didn’t believe he wasn’t a bakery.

So he and his wife drove up there with pizzas on their laps. They introduced the officials to the pizza, and they got their license.

Meanwhile, the ovens are still bread ovens. The family even say they “bake” the pizzas, rather than cook. The temperature for the “baking” is 600 degrees:

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The iron doors are taken from castings from the original oven:

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The restaurant goes through 1 ton of anthracite coal a week, which burns hot and clean:

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It goes into the oven through this door:

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And burns right in the chamber on the floor of the oven.

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The coal burns at about 1,800 degrees:

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The flue pulls the heat over the bricks and the pizzas. They cook in 8 to 10 minutes.

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Then they pull the pizza out with the peel and land it on a sheet pan lined with parchment:

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The reason they use a rectangular pan instead of a round one is that the tables are rectangular and, originally, Frank Pepe’s pizza was meant to be shared among a big family. Just plop it down in the middle and everyone can dig in. (They have made a concession to modern times, and today they stick tiny plates and a few forks and napkins under the parchment.)

The pizza is also cut in a special way (there is a diagram) so there are different sizes, but everyone gets a piece of crust. If Dad wants a big one, he can have it — and it will have a crusty edge. If junior wants a tiny one, well, same thing:

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When you have tradition, you stick with it.

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Here’s a menu board from the original New Haven location. It’s from the 1930s.

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Maybe someday there’ll be a 80-year-old menu board from the Yonkers location, too.

The 411 on Frank Pepe’s coming soon. Until then:

1955 Central Ave., Yonkers. 914-961-8284. pepespizzeria.com

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About Author

Liz Johnson is content strategist for The Journal News and lohud.com, and the founding editor of lohudfood, formerly know as Small Bites. As food editor, she won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.

14 Comments

  1. Bob Fredericks, local news editor on

    Great post Liz. I’ve been going to the original Frank Pepe’s on Wooster Street in New Haven since I was a kid, and it’s a truly amazing experience. When I first got to The Journal News going on 10 years ago, I’d mentioned it to a few New York colleagues who scoffed at my provincial tastes. “Pizza, from Connecticut? Yeah, right.” They’d shake their heads pitiably at me as they ticked off all the supposedly superior joints in Westchester and the city. Vindication is sweet! One thing though, don’t give up on the white clam pie. Try it this way: extra garlic, a little well done, with lots of crushed red pepper. My kids love it with bacon on top; their bacon is as awesome as their pepperoni and sausage

  2. I went to Pepe’s on opening night and was disappointed. Crust: too thick. Pie: not enough cheese. And most of the slices were too day (not enough oil). I’m hoping that the not-quite-Pepe’s pizza I had was the result of opening night jitters. I may try it again after 1st of the year.

  3. Thanks for the behind the scenes tour. I grew up on the wonderful New Haven pies. And I have tried the Fairfield offshoot but haven’t been that impressed. I am hoping to get a group from work to go to Yonkers for lunch. Clam pies are an acquired taste but like fish tacos, once you get used to them, they can easily become culinary staples.

  4. I’ve eaten pizza everywhere. Born in Queens, father from Brooklyn – we argue about this all the time. Working in Manhattan right now – lots of good places in all the city. Most of Jersey has good pizza too, and in CT it’s Fairfield County or New Haven or forget it.

    Pepe’s ingredients are as good or better than anywhere I’ve eaten. The crust is thinner and according to my Sicilian-born grandfather, Pepe’s pies are like turning back the hands of time – real natural ingredients and all high-quality stuff.

    I’m not into waiting for pizza – no matter how good, so if I’m in the area, I go at off times. Pepe’s is how NY pizza used to be and is a great pie.

  5. Just got back from Wooster St ( I’ve averaged six to eight trips a year there since 1994) and saw this article. After eating at the Yonkers location last Saturday, I have to say, considering they just opened, they’re doing a nice job with their pies. IMO it took Fairfield about a year to get it right and there’s no getting around breaking in that oven I suppose.

    Pepe’s is simply the best pizza around and it appears that the expansion is being done the right way so I’m sure “Old Reliable” is smiling wherever he may be 🙂 As I said to my friends, the only two things missing are the Italian ambiance of Wooster St. and Libby’s for dessert.

  6. I’ve never eaten here but just by the looks of the cheese I’m not impressed. I’ve seen them featured on Food Network and have said that the ingredients don’t look fresh. I’ve eaten at Totonnos’ and Grimaldi’s quite often and even visually their pizzas are better. They use fresh homemade mozzarella which is key. Pepe’s looks like deli sliced cheese. Sorry, I won’t venture out to this or any othere pepe’s.

  7. Frank Pepe’s in Yonkers, finally. While I actually now live closer to the Fairfield store, I can take my mom, who’s still in Yonkers, when I go to visit.

    Try the white clam pie with bacon, no mozzerella. It’s a clams casino pizza, just great!

  8. Liz, great post! It seems like you pretty much agreed with Nikki and I re: Pepe’s pizza. Tomato pie was excellent…next time definitely hold off on the mozz on the clam pie. Next time we’re going to order the clam pie with bacon, transforming it into a clam casino pie. It’s funny, ever since we did the initial post/review on Sunday Sauce, we were inundated with emails by people complaining about the Pepe Yonkers pizza. People need to calm down and just give the place a chance to season the ovens and get it right. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
    If you ever go back soon, drop me a line, as my main business is diagonal from Pepe’s on Central Ave. I’ll meet you for a pie!
    Jonny
    Sunday Sauce

  9. Great and informative post! I’ve been to Pepe’s in Yonkers twice. Unfortunately, the first visit was really disappointing. The pizza was a far cry from what I remembered in New Haven (we ordered a large with mozzarella, half onions, half sausage). The table next to us ordered the original clam pie that they usually drive to New Haven to get and they were incredibly disappointed. HOWEVER, we did go back to Pepe’s in Yonkers a week later and ordered the same pie and it was delicious. There are inconsistencies in the pizza quality. Some seem way overcooked to the point of burnt hard cardboard. Some seem way undercooked and raw. Maybe the ovens need more time to settle in. I’ll keep going back, though. When they do get it right, it’s pretty amazing pizza.

  10. We seem to have had the same experience as most. Pies came out inconsistent. Some burnt and some raw. Not inedible but not what I remember from New Haven (dating/marrying a Yale man who waited on line for a pie many a time and it was worth it). Maybe the ovens do need a little time. The wait staff and general manager however were SUPER! To be commended in such a caotic enviornment they were not rushing you but moving you along in a most pleasant way. The parking is a challenge but the tasty fresh clam pie (no cheese) is amazing. Actually the leftover I brought home to hubby was crisper reheated on the pizza stone. We will go back and try again in a few months…maybe by then the oven will be hotter.
    Thanks Liz for a super historical article on Pepe’s. It was fun sitting there knowing the details of the construction of the oven and the history of the man they call FRANK PEPE.

  11. Hearing the Frank Pepes was coming to Yonkers, was good news. However, I cannot say the same for the pizza. I bought a pie to go, and found that when I got home, I had a burnt (to black) pizza. The crust was extremely hard. Wish I could’ve tasted the sauce that everyone raves about, but all I could taste was burnt crust, like eating a used match.
    While I was waiting for my pie, I watched some of the “process”. I noticed that the pizza maker was wearing gloves (for sanitary purposes I suppose), yet would dip his hands into some liquidy Clams to top one pie, and then not change the gloves, while making the next pie … dipping the same clammy hands in the mozzarella for pizza #2 .. so I guess that person#2, got clammy flavor, whether they wanted it or not. I also noticed that they weren’t too organized in passing out the pizzas while customers waited. Actually was very surprised at how amateurish the process was.
    I usually don’t participate in these type of forums, and I’m not usually a basher, but I was SO looking forward to Pepes in Yonkers, and so disappointed at dishing out $16 and change, for the pie that I brought home. I hope that Pepe-Yonkers can get their act together, because I know that I’ll give it another try down the road… but I think 2 strikes will be enough for me, to send me elsewhere for good.

  12. Been to Frank Pepe’s in Yonkers twice and I love there Pizza. Great flavors and a very crispy crust from the Coal Ovens. My favorite so far is the Sausage and Mushroom it was so delicious ! I love that the crust is so crunchy and the tomatoe sauces is wonderful. This is my NEW Pizza place .. None better !!

  13. Okay so maybe the fourth time is the charm…kept trying to have a crisp clam pizza like I remember from when dating my “Yalie” hubby in the 80’s, in New Haven but each time was so very dissappointed in the soggy crust that kept arriving after the long wait. I just got home from another try as they kept saying the oven needs to be seasoned and the kinks out of the kitchen staff so come back again (thought it was just a ploy to suck me back in)…Tried again and it was finally what I remember from all those years ago (over 20-yikes). Crisp, charred crust with a wonderful clam flavor. We even added onions this time…the manager really stepped it up after I mentioned my previous three attempts. Thanks to Vinny…it was a clam pie to remember…if you were dissappointed before try Pepe’s again if you can get a seat…CU there!

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