Franco Pepe a man who is considered to be the best producer of pizza in all of Italy was recently whisked to Los Angeles by Nancy Silverton for a series of classes and a wine dinner. Gambero Rosso, an organization that arose in the late 1980s alongside the Slow Food Movement (in protest to fast food, in this case a McDonald’s opening in Rome) has called Franco Pepe the best Italy has to offer.
Naturally I was skeptical of all the hype surrounding this title; while the Gambero Rosso is still respected, it’s widely agreed they aren’t the authority on food and wine in Italy. Nancy Silverton is rarely wrong when it comes to food and ingredient quality; hearing her speak about Franco piqued interest.
What did also turn my head, other than the obvious Silverton endorsement was Jonathan Gold’s seal of approval. Mr. Gold certainly doesn’t miss many meals, and his opinions carry a great deal of weight in the food universe. With the quick appearance of Phil Rosenthal, as well as Evan Klieman it was apparent the word on this pizza was out.
Franco’s talk was heady with his philosophy and humility, he delved deeply into his insistence that the ingredients are more important than the pizza itself. Nearly everything he utilizes comes from a nearby farm or producer in Caiazzo, about an hour south of Naples.
Franco argues the high quality of the ingredients allows his pizza to transcend category, becoming more health food than fast food. This Neo-Aristotelianism begins with the dough; Franco almost never removed his hands from rolling or massaging a small piece of it throughout his speech. It was as if his connection to the dough, and indirectly his connection to the land of Caiazzo was constant. As Katie Parla writes in her excellent review of his restaurant, “Each pizza, therefore, is the result of a set of choices.”
I still am not certain whether the Enya like, enchanting videos of his property in Campania made me believe everything he said, especially regarding the mildly dubious conjectures about the digestibility of his dough. I did however feel remarkably satisfied, and not uncomfortably full after gorging on several slices of his light and fluffy masterpiece. This really was the best pizza I’ve had to date, and I did want to ride a horse through Campania in slow motion searching for the best basil.
The only technical detail I was able to glean through the translations was that he started the dough by hand with beer yeast and it was based upon free combinations of different types of flour. The crust for me was one of the most magnificent parts of the pizza; closer to a pita bread in it’s light fluffy body combined with a crusty and firm exterior.
The third generation Pizzaiolo along with his highly capable sous chef continued pulling masterpiece after masterpiece out of the not hot enough wood fired oven (I could tell as his companion kept lifting the pizza off the stone higher to capture more heat). I was reminded of my experience in Rome at La Gatta Mangiona, where the temperature of the brick oven could be felt meters away by the door.
The most interesting pizza I tasted was a signature pizza Margherita, with the basil and tomato sauce finishing the molten cheese. I found this approach extremely satisfying, and as I glanced at the crowd there was not a unhappy attendee.
Franco Pepe claims that “his method has no fixed rules, but puts together ancient practices and gestures” I didn’t see evidence of this, as the method seemed to be geared towards producing an incredibly consistent product of extremely high quality. An insistence on very particular ingredients, anchovies from Cetara, dough seasoned with Casertano pork suet, and oregano from Matese to name a few.
It’s not hard to see why Pepe in Grani has taken over the town of Caiazzo, becoming one of the numerous agricultural tourist locales. The Alto Casertano region is certainly benefiting from this newfound pope of pizza; I know my stomach certainly did.