Pepe’s Pizzeria: The Lost Art of the Culinary Rivalry


(Corey Neumeier)

The outside of Pepe’s Pizzeria in New Haven, Connecticut. The coal-fired pizza restaurant was founded in 1925.

We open on the hustle and bustle of the Yale University (Yes, that Yale) campus in 1925. Frank Pepe, a small-time baker and pizza enthusiast opens his restaurant on a warm summer’s day. It grew from a special pizza-carrying headdress to a food cart, to a full-time restaurant, boasting fresh pies from the undying flame of a brand-new black brick pizza oven. In the hearts of many, Pepe’s pizza has become the stuff of legends, considered by the majority of Connecticuters and certainly Yalers to be the best pizza on the planet.

Mere blocks away from Pepe’s sits Sally’s Apizza, opened in 1938 by Salvatore Consiglio, Pepe’s nephew. An alternative for starving Yalers. A respite from the round-the-corner lines at Pepe’s. And of course, Pepe’s unofficial nemesis.

A small-town pizza restaurant is and was then no surprise on the east coast. The influx of European immigrants to American metropolises and their surrounding suburbs following the end of the first world war spiked the density of ethnically European restaurants on the eastern seaboard permanently. More than perhaps anything else, It defines the culinary heritage of the East and makes the culinary purgatory of my home, Colorado, all the more pronounced.

I am but the latest in an astonishingly long list of patrons in Pepe’s long history. Coaxed by my mother, a native Connecticuter, into standing in the round-the-corner queue to taste the cheesy, greasy slice of heaven from the famed black brick pizza oven. At the risk of sacrificing the authentic Pepe’s experience, we called ahead and picked up a to-go order (hey, it was cold out). Returning to the car, laden with a pizza box large enough to feed a small army, or one me, I was greeted with what I must admit, may have been the best pizza I have ever eaten. I won’t get involved in the nitty-gritty of where it fits in the grand scale of all pizza even eaten because truthfully, I don’t care. It was as food should be, carefully prepared, and eaten with reckless abandon for temperature or heart health. It occurred to me then what the good, old-fashioned pizza rivalry had done. Without Sally’s down the street poking and prodding on Pepe territory this pizza never would have made its way down my greedy gullet. If Pepe’s hadn’t been faced with Sally’s, the pizza wouldn’t need to be so competitive, and the quality would have gone down. And along with the quality down goes the patronage, and before you know it you’re looking at another empty space on Whalley Street.

Corey Neumeier enjoys a fresh slice of Pepe’s pizza. (Gloria Staebler)

Colorado has this problem, a few other states out West do, too, but I’m convinced it’s not to our degree. Our history is the silver rush. What do we owe to the trains of miners that came to the West? Canned beans and creamed corn, are not exactly Michelin-level stuff. We have second-rate Mexican joints coming out of the ears, just like every state in the American Southwest. We have the brand-spanking-new, hyper-gentrified software neighborhoods that serve artisanal drip coffee for exorbitant prices, but we certainly didn’t beat Seattle or SoCal to that card. So what do we have? The King, and the Clown, and the Colonel. En mas. Fast food coats Denver, it festers and bleeds in the streets. Our lack of culinary identity allows the blight that is the Big Mac to take over in silence. Within a five-minute drive of our comparatively remote school building, we have access to three fast-food restaurants and another two coffee houses that pump out more calories in a single drink than the dollar profit they take in per day. What other options might there be, you ask? An alright Chinese place, an alright Italian place, an alright Japanese place, and a couple of alright Mexican spots. They get the job of filling oneself with calories done. Do they get the job done on a budget? No. Do they get the job done in an effective amount of time? No. But do you know what does? The King, and the Clown, and the Colonel.

Colorado has good food certainly, my gripe is the identity, we have nothing to fight for, no local rivalries to arbitrarily side with. New England has pizza, it has hot dogs, it has pastries, and iron all the while sharpening iron. All our local joints have to compete with is Taco Bell. What local chain can afford to offer a cheesy gordita cravings box for $5? What mom-n-pop can staff their restaurant 24/7? None of them can, and therein lies the problem, as consumers we have allowed fast food to outcompete good food. We have dug ourselves into this hole, and it is only by considerable force that we can get out. Buy local, buy quality if you can, but most importantly, ditch the fast food. We, nay you, deserve better than this.