I am a pizza connoisseur. Pizza, if done right, is one of the few foods that I could eat every day of my life and never grow tired of it. The basic combination of dough, cheese and toppings have lead to some of the greatest gastronomical moments of my life. I cook pizza, I consume pizza and I study the art form. Therefore, I feel I am qualified to settle the (mostly personal) debate of which pizza establishment is the most diesel. In one corner, challenger Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana originally out of New Haven, CT with several other locations across southern New England. In the other corner, reigning champion of my stomach, The Upper Crust Pizzeria out of Boston, MA with fifteen locations in the state of Massachusetts (and one in Key West, FL).
It’s hard to admit this, but I grew up in Connecticut and hadn’t tried Pepe’s until this past weekend. I was well aware of the accolades, and as a pizza fan, I am ashamed to have not sampled the pie sooner. Their semi-new Fairfield, CT location played host for my epic first tasting. But before we could even step in the door, we had to wait on line outside in the parking lot for an hour. No reservations excepted. Take-out calls must be placed hours in advance. No calling ahead and putting your name in. You show up and you wait until a table opens. I can’t think of a single other restaurant, besides the baffling tourist magnet called The Cheesecake Factory in the Prudential Center (and a million other locations), where patrons will willing wait for more than a hour to eat.
Once inside, we made quick work of the menu ordering one medium sausage and spinach pie, and one medium chicken and bacon pie. As we waited it was hard to ignore the massive brick over cranking out hundreds of pizzas at over 600 degrees. We drank a pitcher of Sam Adams (serving beer, always a plus) and the sausage/spinach combo came out first on a rectangular metal baking sheet. No cute circle pans or triangle cuts here; free form edges and random slices.
The pizza was awesome–crispy yet chewy thin crust, perfect ratio of sauce to cheese to toppings, and excellent flavor. My only knock was that they used frozen chopped spinach instead of fresh leaves. The latter would have made this pie an easy 10.
The bacon/chicken pie came out somewhere between my second or third slice of the first pie. Great smoky aroma from the bacon and at first glance I could tell that they use real shredded chicken breast as opposed to pre-fab cutlets or chunks. The chicken, bacon and mozzarella made a rich and savory combination. The bacon not too chewy or crispy, the crust perfect again.
I made a mature decision and cut myself off around six pieces, right before a major pizza coma kicked in. As a group, we finished all of the Sausage/Spinach with three pieces left over of the Chicken/Bacon for lunch the next day. Expectations for Pepe’s were sky high. It’s nice when something can actually live up to the hype.
The Upper Crust
I’ve eaten at The Upper Crust more times than I’d like to count. I’d hardly consider the restaurant a chain, but regardless of which location you eat at, you’ll get outstanding quality, unique topping combinations and an outstanding crust. In addition to the usual design-your-pie with standard meat and veggie toppings, they offer several specialty pizzas like BBQ Chicken, The State House (hamburger, pepperoni and sausage) and The Uncommon (pineapple, bacon and jalapeno). These pies make it easy to put flavors together, but hard to pick which one you actually want to order. The Upper Crust offers convenience, awesome pizza, and great atmosphere in their open, yet intimate shops. Always check for the slice of the day, then go for a specialty pie depending on your mood.
Pepe’s is an experience that must be undertaken by those serious about their pizza. Their simple, yet delicious pies are classic and what every other neopolitan pizza strives to emulate. Their brick oven is unmatched. I can overlook the frozen chopped spinach, but I question routinely waiting upwards of an hour per visit just to get into the door before sitting down for a meal. I understand it’s to be expected, and they have been expanding, adding locations, but is the pizza worth the hassle? Obviously, for a Pepe’s virgin, yes. But I wonder, if I lived in the area, like my friends do now, would I brave the crowds or place my dinner order at noon?
The Upper Crust on the other hand, is there whenever I get hungry. By default, their location(s), they are favorable. Their gourmet topping combinations set them apart from the standard corner pizza house, showing that they’re trying to elevate the art of pizza, and go beyond the classics. I’m not sure whether The Upper Crust loses points for not having a wood-fired brick oven or they earn more respect for producing stellar pizza from industrial ovens.
Pepe’s was the first, the original, and arguably the best. But The Upper Crust takes what Pepe’s does and goes beyond. Both are extremely diesel and must be feasted on in mass quantities by any who considered themselves serious pizza fans. My ultimate favorite? Whichever place I’m seated in.