2/27/2006 04:33 AM Fairfield To Get Taste Of Pepe's Pizza
The grandchildren of Frank Pepe, who founded the famous Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven in 1925, are working hard to replicate the Wooster Street landmark on Commerce Drive in Fairfield.
Anthony Rosselli, Pepe's grandson, said the Fairfield Pepe's should be nearly identical to the New Haven pizzeria — from the height of ceilings and pictures on the walls to the coal-fired oven, booths, light fixtures and menu.
And, of course, the thing that matters most — the pizza.
"The only critical thing is the pizza," Rosselli said. "If it isn't the same, we're dead. That's all we have."
Rosselli, 58, said he brought water from Fairfield to New Haven to ensure the pizza dough made with water from the Fairfield site would pass the test. It does, he said.
Pepe's was founded 81 years ago, although Rosselli said the New Haven favorite might not be the oldest pizzeria in America. He said Lombardi's in New York City might be older. "Either we pre-date Lombardi's, or we are one of the two oldest," Rosselli said.
A man who answered the phone at Lombardi's said that restaurant opened in 1905 and is the oldest pizzeria in America.
Pepe's is now run by the third generation of founder Frank Pepe's family, and Rosselli said his first cousin, Gary Bimonte, and his brother, Francis Rosselli, are "the standard-bearers of the product."
"We're really blessed. It is a signature product, and so our effort is really quite specific — it's to maintain the quality of this old, venerable recipe my grandfather had," Rosselli said. "The pie you get now is close to identical to the pie my grandfather made in 1925."
But the fourth generation of the Pepe family is not interested in continuing in the business, so the doors have been opened to people who aren't descendants of Frank Pepe, but who share a love of making pizzas from his secret recipe.
"In order to maintain the business, we had to have a business plan to continue making pizza," Rosselli said. "The fourth generation is interested in going to school and having other professions."
The Fairfield Pepe's will seat about 105 people and is scheduled to open March 13.
Q: Why did you decide to open in Fairfield?
A: "A lot of our customers come up from southern Connecticut, south of New Haven, and we felt we can draw a lot of customers from south of Fairfield. And there's a lot of name recognition in this area, as evidenced by the buzz that exists already on the street We've always had a lot of customers from Bridgeport over the years. That's always been a draw for us, the Bridgeport area."
Q: How would you characterize your pizza? Is it a thin-crust pizza?
A: "It's a thin-crusted pizza. A great number of factors go into the recipe. It is not what people would consider to be a typical pizza dough. The dough recipe is different from other pizzerias, so we have a unique product in terms of the dough. We use only the highest-quality ingredients on the pizza. Our volume has allowed us to buy only the best ingredients, and we have a magnificent oven. You don't see many ovens with a dimension of 12 feet by 12 feet in size, and it's a coal-fired oven, which we think is a great way to maintain temperature and cook pizza."
Q: Are you worried about competition from other pizzerias in Fairfield and Bridgeport?
A: "Competition makes everybody better. If we bring business to this area, people drive by here, they're going to stop at other restaurants in the area and they'll get more exposure.
"My suspicion is everybody will do better if we do well."
Q: Have you always been in the pizza business?
A: "I went to NYU and had a career as a teacher for 25 years.
"I still teach and look forward to doing more work in my profession. One of the reasons this thing has to move on is we're in the third generation. In the third generation and fourth generation, people move on."
Q: Where did you teach?
A: "I was a teacher at the Cheshire public schools, at the high school level. I was a special ed teacher at the high school level."
Q: What do you like to eat besides pizza?
A: "In terms of Italian meals, I like bruschetta I love a good steak. I like to eat fish, all kinds of foods Interestingly, I still crave a pizza every week or two, so I figure it must be good if we haven't gotten sick of it."
Q: What did you do inside for the renovation?
A: "It was a total renovation, just gutted. The only thing that remains the same is the floor. The ceiling was a lot lower, about 8 inches lower. We went through a big expense to pick up another 8 inches or 10 inches because it makes a big difference in the feel of the restaurant."
Q: Are you looking forward to the new Fairfield train station and commercial development that's going to be built near Commerce Drive? It will have office buildings and a hotel.
A: "It can't hurt the business. It can't hurt."
Q: What kind of hobbies do you have? What do you like to do when you're not working?
A: "I'm an avid fly-fisherman. I've been fly-fishing in Montana for 30 straight summers in order to clear my head for another year of teaching. Fly-fishing is a big one for me. I'm interested in music and go to the city quite a bit, mostly classical music and jazz."
Q: Do you think the Fairfield Pepe's will be a madhouse on opening day?
A: "I think we'll be busy. I think we'll be very busy. You kind of fear getting slammed in the restaurant business, but it's also what you want."
— ANDREW BROPHY