Saturday, April 14, 2012

New Haven Pizza Wars - Pepe's

Reasons I think I'm qualified to eat and critique pizza pies:

* I was born and raised in Chicago, home of the gooey, cheesey delicious monstrosity known as the Deep Dish Pizza
* I have spent the better part of the last decade as a waitress in various sports bars and mid-scale (but with cloth napkins!) restaurants, so I know my way around a table setting
* One of those waitressing jobs was in my uncle's (now cousin's) pizza joint The Pizza Factory of Barrington. It was an immersion into the wild and wonderful world of pizza making, and I actually got good enough to just "know" when the slice was heated to perfection and ready to come out of the oven.
* I'm an American, dammit, and I have opinions, and if I self-publish any of them, they become official.

That being said, I ventured out of my apartment the other day to find and eat the second of my New Haven Pizza War's pie - Pepe's Pizza, home of the original New Haven apizza. Founded in 1925 by Frank Pepe, this apizza set the standard by which all other apizzas were to be baked. As is customary, ordering a "plain" will get you fresh tomato sauce, some grated cheese, olive oil, garlic, oregano, and not much else. Mozzarella is considered a topping.

I arrived at Pepe's around 11:45am on a Wednesday morning. Yes, that's early for pizza. That's actually too early for anything besides a bagel or maybe a breakfast sandwich, but here's the thing - Pepe's opens at 11:30am each day, but when I arrived just 15 minutes after the doors opened, the place was already half full. I had heard that waiting up to an hour for a table is common, regardless of the time or day of the week. I'm a busy person and had no desire to wait that long for a slice of pizza, so I arrived much earlier than I normally would have for a mid-week lunch.

Most of the patrons were elderly couples with only a few young families and solo business lunchers dotting the diner-like booths, which allows me to believe that this isn't just a tourist trap - people have been coming here for apizza for years. Maybe this wouldn't be quite the case on a Friday night in the summer, but I actually have no intention of seeing what that's like.

I luckily found a table right away and it wasn't too long before the waiter approached. I inquired of the difference between a tomato pizza with cheese and a margherita pizza, and was told that the margherita is made with fresh mozzarella, while everyday (processed) cheese is used on all the rest. Great! I ordered a margherita with mushrooms...and was told I couldn't alter the margherita pizza. Ok, fine, so instead I ordered the tomato pizza with mozzarella and mushrooms (I like mushrooms, and decided right then and there that if I was doing a true cross-pizza comparison, I should keep my toppings consistant).

Not gonna lie - I had high expectations for Pepe's. It's "the" pizza place in New Haven, a bunch of people told me I absolutely had to go there, and after finding a really good pizza at last week's restaurant, I was expecting nothing short of cullinary gold. And when I finally bit into the wasn't good.

I don't want to bash the place too much. It is, after all, one of New Haven's most-loved restaurants. And it's very possible I caught them on an off day. Or maybe they bring in their B-Team on Wednesday mornings. But in no particular order, here is how an 87-year-old pizzeria screwed up my lunch:
   - The sauce - bland. I'm pretty sure it had no spices whatsoever, and I like a sweeter sauce with a bit of a bite.
   - The cheese - meh. And VERY oily. There were pools of grease atop the pizza, so many that I had to blot each slice like I did back in high school when it was pizza day and I was concerned about fitting into my Winter Dance dress.
   - The crust - awful. It was doughy cardboard for the first half of the slice, but then switched to crisp cardboard for the latter half.
   - Large swaths of the cheese and crust were burnt. I'm all for a coal-oven cooking method, but I think someone in the kitchen forgot to take my pizza out on time.
   - Mushrooms - there could have been more. And I guess they were fresh, but I was too busy gnawing at the crust to really notice.

And I was one of the first customers of the day! Maybe the ovens were still working their way to regulation temperatures, maybe the chefs were still warming and/or waking up, but still. I ate three pieces because I was hungry, but didn't enjoy any of them. I took the rest to go in hopes that it would make for some good cold pizza - on the contrary, I think it got worse in the fridge.

Ho hum. You win some, you lose some. I suppose that at $12 (pizza, tax, and tip) it wasn't a huge monetary loss. And I did eat the rest of the leftovers over the next few days (it was bad, not inedible. And I don't believe in wasting food). But here's hoping my the next New Haven apizza I order doesn't leave me seriously considering a permanent relocation back to Chicago.

No comments:

Post a Comment