By Bernie Whitmore

pepes-copyFew dishes have the universal appeal of pizza ~ and for many of us these feelings verge on passion. It’s a meal you can use to measure the virtue of an individual restaurant or entire city. I’ve had vacations that were highlighted by a single slice of pizza featuring an ingredient unavailable elsewhere. And then there are times I settle for store-bought. Pizza sits at the top of the food pyramid; it’s something essential to civilized life.

Late last summer news started spreading about a new place in town for pizza ~ Pepe’s on Franklin Street. Attention Worcester! Your world of pizza may never be the same.

After my third visit to Pepe’s, I struggled to conceive of a way to convey how much I enjoyed their pizza. The crust of their Funghi Pizza is thin but not cracker-thin like Al Forno’s in Providence (pizza-lovers’ nirvana). Yet Pepe’s oven must be a hot one, as the crust is baked deep golden-brown and crunchy around the edges. The broad slices of fresh mushrooms have a delicate, earthy flavor lost to the canned product most kitchens use, yet they stand up to the rich tomato sauce and generous sprinkling of oregano. Stretchy mozzarella cheese contributes another gentle note to the harmony of flavors, nothing like the rubbery oil patch you find elsewhere. So what should I say? “Great Pizza!” They deserve better.

And then, on a business trip to the other end of the country, I was served slices of “the best pizza in town.” As I struggled to dine politely upon pallid cardboard crust, canned tomato sauce and tough oily cheese, it occurred to me that the person responsible really didn’t understand pizza, flavor or quality. At that point, the memory of Pepe’s returned as a mirage, beckoning me homeward to a place where family pride is invested in the quality of the pizza. Worcester may have several good pizza parlors, but Pepe’s is staking a claim for first place.

Beyond the dozen or so pizza and stromboli variations, Pepe’s also serves Italian entrees. On this particular evening we shared Funghi Pizza as our appetizer and then ventured a bit deeper into their menu. I continued with Lasagna, a formidable layer cake of broad noodles encasing cheese, meat and tomato sauce. The noodles hadn’t been over-cooked and the portion size was more than generous. My impression of Pepe’s tomato sauce is that it has been slowly simmered and given plenty of time to develop depth of flavor.

My friend ordered Chicken Parmesan. I realize there’s a legion of Chicken Parm crazies out there, as passionate about it as I am about pizza. For eleven dollars, they’re going to flock to Pepe’s for the largest chunk of chicken going. I don’t know where these giant birds come from, but the final product certainly isn’t the typical bucket of industrialized boneless “product” churned out by many kitchens. The texture and juiciness of this chicken tasted as fresh as you’d serve to guests in your own home. It came served over a bowl of ziti drenched in more of Pepe’s tomato sauce.

Our entrees came with house salads of crispy-fresh mixed greens, thin-sliced red onions and cups of light and zesty Italian dressing. A basket containing chunks of hot bread was served with dipping oil we tricked out with repeated shakes of grated parmesan cheese.

Word’s spreading fast. Even though Pepe’s is located in a meat-packing house that sat empty for years on the edge of a vast canyon of empty factory buildings, their reputation for preparing old family recipes with quality and value is already drawing crowds. They’ve created a comfortable dining room with broad windows that look out on Route 290 and the new firehouse. Anyone who remembers a time when entire Italian families would get together for dinner will feel right at home at Pepe’s.

274 Franklin Street, Worcester