Gary Bimonte carries on the family tradition of superlative pie-slinging at Frank Pepe’s, famed for its crisp, charred-crust pizza cooked in coal-burning ovens.Photo Credit : Carl Tremblay
The pizza business is a family business at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana. What began in 1925, when Italian immigrant Frank Pepe opened his small takeout shop on Wooster Street in New Haven, Connecticut, has grown into a bucket-list destination for thin-crust fanatics, with nine shops spread across southern New England and another in Yonkers, New York. Today, Frank Pepe’s seven grandchildren head the restaurant, including Gary Bimonte, who began washing dishes at 12 years old and is now the public face of the Pepe brand. We talked shop over pizza—what else?—with Bimonte at his West Hartford location.
My grandfather came from Italy twice. He first arrived with my uncle in the teens, but when World War I broke out, he was called back to fight. He met my grandmother back home, and he returned with her to America and ended up in New Haven, where he worked at a macaroni factory and a bakery. Eventually, he started flattening out the bread dough, putting sauce on it, and peddling his flatbread pizzas around town. But he had trouble keeping track of who owed him what. My grandmother finally said,“Let’s open a place for you to sell your pizzas.” So in 1925 he opened a small takeout place called Francisco Pepe Bakery.
He was an extremely generous man, my grandfather. He didn’t want anybody to go hungry. He started work at 6 in the morning and often didn’t finish until midnight or so. But even after he closed he wouldn’t turn people away. He lived in an apartment above the restaurant, and at 3 in the morning it wasn’t unusual for a hungry customer to throw pebbles at his window. My grandfather would get up, go back into the kitchen, and make them a pizza.
My mother and my aunt took over the restaurant from my grandparents. When I was little, I’d go in with my mom and then go upstairs to be with my grandparents. Later, I started washing dishes at the restaurant. I liked the idea of working for the business, but my mother had higher aspirations for me. “I want you to use your brains,” she’d say. I ended up going to a technical college, but I only lasted a month. Classes started and I thought, I can’t do this. So I went back to New Haven, and my mom put me to work. She said, “Do it for a year, and then we’ll talk.” That was nearly 40 years ago. I haven’t left.
I have great memories of those early years. All the cousins worked together. We were all around the same age and just having a ball. We worked hard, but it was the late ’70s and early ’80s. I mean, come on. What do you expect?
We’ve grown a lot, but we’ve also tried to honor my grandfather’s commitment to quality. We still use the same imported Italian cheese he used. Our tomatoes are from the same region. We serve the same locally produced soda, Foxon Park, my grandfather did when he first opened. The sausage comes from the same New Haven family we’ve always bought it from. That kind of continuity is important to us.
There isn’t anyone from the fourth generation who wants to take over from us. They’ve all gone on to do their own thing. They know it’s hard work, and to do it you have to love it. It’s just how it is. I understand it, but it’s bittersweet.
The popular storyline is that three famous New Haven pizza shops are fierce competitors. But there’s no animosity. Sal’s was started by my grandfather’s nephew—we’re family. We’ve helped each other out. Back in the day, we used to coordinate our days off with the other stores. When Sal’s and Modern closed, their customers would come to us. We could always tell who they were. They were more demanding and gave us a hard time.
I still love pizza. I had one the other night. I like to make specialty pizzas for personal consumption. My favorite is a hot dog pizza. It would blow you away. It’s white, no sauce, with watered-down mustard, hot dogs, sauerkraut, onions, peppers, bacon, and just a little grated cheese. I call it the All-American.
Making the dough, cooking the pizzas—it’s an art form. You have to be the dough, you know? I no longer work the kitchen, but I can still jump in there. I’m still just as good as I was. The other day I had to make a couple pizzas for a TV commercial we’re making. Someone said, “You made those pizzas in two minutes.” I said, “Two minutes? That’s slow. I was taking my time.” What can I say? It’s a gift. I have my grandfather’s hand on my shoulder. He’s still here with us. I really believe that.