The pizzas at Frank Pepe have a thin, crispy crust after being cooked in a coal-fired brick oven. Photo courtesy of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana

The local food world was giddy with anticipation in December 2019 when Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, a family-owned, New Haven, Connecticut-based business that dates to 1925, announced it would be opening an outlet in Bethesda’s Westfield Montgomery mall in 2020. Due to myriad construction delays caused by the pandemic, opening day didn’t come until March 28 of this year.

The 3,500-square-foot restaurant, which seats 74 inside and 16 outside, is the company’s 13th. A 14th opened in Alexandria, Virginia, in July, and two Florida outposts are slated to open by 2023. “We chose Bethesda as a location because it’s very accessible and convenient and we got a lot of requests from people in the area,” says Jennifer Kelly, 65, a granddaughter of Frank Pepe who co-owns the restaurants with her two sisters and three of their cousins. “We started in a college town, and a lot of our stores are near colleges. Those kids eat our pizza and then go home and want our pizza there.”

Many pizza aficionados consider Frank Pepe pies, especially the one made with fresh clams, garlic, oregano and grated Pecorino Romano cheese, to be the ne plus ultra of pizzas. (Pizza is called “apizza”in New Haven and pronounced “a-beets.”) Pepe pizza’s hallmark is a thin, crispy, chewy crust with spots of char on the edges and a few on the bottom, too. (The dough recipe is a family secret.) This isn’t the gooey kind of Neapolitan pizza that is soupy in the center and needs to be eaten with a fork and knife. When you pick up a slice of Frank Pepe, it will stick out straight with little to no drooping. 

Photo courtesy of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana

Frank Pepe made his pizzas in a coal-fired brick oven, and that’s how they’re made today. “How the oven was built in New Haven is how each oven is built in all of our stores,” Kelly says. “The oven weighs 104,000 pounds. Every brick, every steel bar in that Bethesda oven is the exact design as the one in New Haven. The dry heat of coal is what gives our pizza its crispness.” The pies (12, 16 or 18 inches) are baked at 600 degrees for eight to 10 minutes, depending on the toppings, and maneuvered with a 16-foot peel. (Those soupy Neapolitan pizzas, by contrast, are baked at 800 to 900 degrees for 60 to 90 seconds.)

In addition to the clam pizza, the crushed tomato pie is a specialty, made with tomatoes grown, packed and processed exclusively for Frank Pepe near Salerno, Italy, and topped with grated Pecorino Romano and a drizzle of olive oil. In the summer (September is perfect), they offer fresh tomato pies. Specialty pizzas, including the veggie special loaded with broccoli, peppers, mushrooms and spinach, range between $14.50 and $28 for a 16-inch pie. 

The business has always been family-owned, but the grandkids brought on management 25 years ago to expand it beyond Connecticut. The plan is to have 25 stores by 2025, their 100th anniversary. “Family makes all the decisions. We have a team that executes what we want. They know our legacy of using the highest quality ingredients with no skimping,” Kelly says. “We all have the commitment to our grandfather’s legacy.”

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, 7101 Democracy Blvd. (Westfield Montgomery mall), Bethesda, 301-304-7373, pepespizzeria.com­­

This story appears in the September/October 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.