You delight in certain foods while away on vacation. Then the business comes to your area. All of a sudden, that food seems strangely ordinary. Which brings me to Pepe's Pizzeria, which opened in Warwick in May.
WARWICK, R.I. -- Call it the Krispy Kreme syndrome.
There's a doughnut or burger or some food that can only be enjoyed on a road trip. You delight in it while on a vacation, or get a craving and hop in the car, if it's a reasonable distance from home.
Then the business expands into your area. The eating is easy. And all of a sudden, that food seems strangely ordinary. Think of those glazed doughnuts or maybe the fries from Five Guys or the shakes from Sonic.
Which brings me to The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, which opened its 10th location at 21 Universal Blvd. (off Bald Hill Road) in Warwick in May.
News of the opening of this New Haven, Connecticut, icon generated a lot of excitement in January. Then there was the official lighting of the 100,000-pound, coal-fired brick oven. Gary Bimonte, the grandson of Frank Pepe, third generation co-owner of the business and director of quality assurance and training, gave interviews telling about the care given seasoning the oven. Every pizza would be built on his grandfather’s original recipes, using only the finest imported ingredients.
I had waited in line with friends on Wooster Street in New Haven to enjoy this pizza that debuted nearly a hundred years ago. I had fond memories of the experience.
I was excited to have my first R.I. pie. And I was disappointed. I had a plain tomato pizza first — because isn't that the best way to judge the ingredients? I found it to be lacking in flavor, from the dough to the tomatoes to the bland mozzarella cheese. The dough was tender and I like a well-done crust. But where were these imported tomatoes they seek out? Not only were they lacking in seasoning but there wasn't much on the pie either? Pepe's is so proud of these tomatoes they now sell them by the can in the restaurant.
I tried the sausage pizza in the hope that would add some flavor, but instead I found the meat dry and overcooked.
Let me say I found the restaurant servers to be fast and efficient and very pleasant, as was the host who seated us. There was nothing bad about the experience.
I did feel there was no atmosphere in the dining room, which used to be the Corner Bakery Cafe. With lots of white tile, it felt more cafeteria than pizzeria and that added to the generic feeling — though I did love the idea that the outdoor patio was open to eat pizza that was picked up to go inside.
When I called Bimonte to inquire what was different in Warwick than in New Haven, he said nothing was. The cooks train in the original location and use the same recipes. I am the only one who hasn't loved their pizza in Warwick, he said.
Maybe Rhode Island is different because there are many superb pizza offerings, we can all name them from Providence to South County. And each of these pizzerias have their own special atmosphere and charm. They raise the bar for our dining expectations.
So, I went back and did takeout of five varieties for my office to give it all a second chance. Since takeout is a huge part of the business, I thought this fair.
We tried the famous White Clam Pizza ($14.50 for a small). I didn't realize one of my co-workers grew up in New Haven eating at Frank Pepe's. He told me he thought his time would be better spent going to Connecticut to pick up his next pizza.
We got the seasonal Fresh Tomato Pie ($13 for a small versus $7.50 for a traditional cheese pizza), which apparently replaces the sauce with fresh tomatoes. They did have flavor but I couldn't find any fresh garlic or basil on it.
The Quattro Formaggi was an improvement cheese-wise with asiago, goat cheese and Pecorino added to the mozzarella. While it had more flavor, I didn't discern any olive oil or grated cheese. Though each table does have shakers of grated cheese and hot pepper, and they put them in with takeout as well.
I think the Spinach, Mushroom and Gorgonzola ($13), a white pizza, had the best flavor of any I tasted. But even here the toppings were scant.
Beer and wine are sold with the wine poured by the glass or carafe. The draft beer included local offerings of Whaler's Pale Ale and Narragansett lager as well as Sam Adams and the Italian option of Peroni.
But here the preferred choice of beverage is the Foxon Park sodas, which have been served at Pepe's since 1925. and everyone loves for their bright flavors. They have a great cream soda and white birch beer and can be ordered to go in liter bottles.
Also on the menu are salads but that's it. Everything rests on the pies.
I don't think Frank Pepe's pizza is bad, but it lacks soul.
Details: The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, 21 Universal Blvd., Warwick, (401) 825-7776, pepespizza.com. Open daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
(401) 277-7266 On Twitter @gailciampa