On April 30, 2011, when Antonietta Melillo closed her mother’s dress shop in Alife, Italy, she could not have determined how that would influence the world’s top pizzeria. A tidal wave of depression rushed over her for two weeks. Her mother, Elisabetta, had opened the shop for young ladies in 1979 at 70 Via Roma in a town roughly 80 miles north of Naples, the birthplace of the modern pizza.
Antonietta felt like a failure. For two weeks, she couldn’t help but wonder why she was the one to have to close the shop. Tears rushed down her face non-stop each day and each night. Then, while driving down a curved road in Alife, her hometown, she stopped at an old man’s onion plot. She got out of her sedan and pondered why Alife’s main crop, onions, had faded. The Alife onion was said to be first used when the Romans occupied the town. The gladiators would rub their bodies with the onions to tone their muscles.
The Alife onion’s value grew as the years went on. The onions were used for everything from currency for paying rent to a treatment for hair loss. After the 1980s, where there were 30 large-scale farmers producing six tons annually, the crop faded in its importance. That was until that very old man gave Antonietta an onion seed in May of 2011.
Antonietta’s husband, Fabio, is a radiologist in Alife. He wakes up early to support his wife by riding the tractor around an old cattle farm that his grandfather used to fire rifles around. His grandfather had the firing talent to represent his country in the Olympics, but, ultimately, couldn’t afford to do so. Decades later, the farm is now growing 90,000 Alife onions annually. In between riding the tractor, his radiology work, spending time with the couple’s two children, and playing the blues, Fabio jokes that his wife has a name for each of the onions and refuels at Bar Cin Cin in Alife.
In one of Fabio’s rare free minutes, he introduces me to Pasquale, the man behind the bar at Cin Cin. With a missing front tooth, Pasquale speaks with a familiar accent and tells me his name is Pat. An expat to Alife, Pat tells me about how a West Haven, Connecticut native ended up in Alife. Before telling me about how he returned to his father’s birthplace when he got ill and was immediately drafted into the army, Pat gets sucked into my pizza conversation reminiscing about his favorite Connecticut apizza at Zuppardi’s. Pat’s coffee shop has the type of fanfare that you see in the U.S. at a Dunkin Donuts. Fabio is a regular to enjoy the “best espresso in Alife.”
Neither Antonietta nor Fabio’s parents had any experience farming. Her father, a clerk at the town’s employment office, told her not to grow onions. Despite her brief studies of agriculture in school, Antonietta was reminded of her lack of farming knowledge. Her parents pointed to her stature, thin and short, and told their 33-year-old daughter that she wasn’t fit for this type of work. Antonietta insisted that she would succeed in this different world. It is just her and Fabio on the farm. Antonietta does the difficult labor as her husband “just eats and rides the tractor,” according to Fabio.
In 2012, Antonietta’s life changed. Ten miles from Alife, she traveled to a new pizzeria, Pepe In Grani, where she met the pizzaiolo, whom she knew preferred local ingredients. Franco Pepe was overjoyed when he heard about the resurgence of the Alife onions. Ever since, the two have been partners in crime with Franco using Antonietta’s signature onion cream as a spread on several of his creations.
Alongside the Alife onions is the luscious cheese of Mimmo and Pasquale La Vecchia. In their factory, Il Casolare, the brothers develop their own masterpieces that precede those of Franco. Mimmo, who points to his belly as the result of years in the dairy industry (“My whole has been mozzarella and ricotta, mozzarella and ricotta,” he told me), spends eight hours on each bite of cheese (a day old when it hits a Pepe In Grani pizza so that it’s slightly drier) that goes into a Pepe In Grani pizza. Mimmo and Franco’s families go way back to the time where Mimmo’s father made the cheese at the factory, then called Santo Stefano, for Antica Pizzeria Pepe. Once you meet Mimmo, you discover that, while Franco is the heart of the pizza, Mimmo is the soul and funnybone of the “Project.”
Franco Pepe describes his restaurant as the “Project” to pay homage to his initial mission. Franco’s goal was to showcase the excellence of the region’s producers with each pizza. Pizza has been a part of the Pepe family for decades. Franco’s grandfather began making bread in 1913, testing out a pizza once in 1950. His grandfather’s culinary success led to Antica Pizzeria Pepe, the motivation for Pepe In Grani. The “Project” is more than a gallery for Campania cuisine, but also because it was an undertaking with unanticipated ramifications.
Like Antonietta, Franco was told he was crazy when he first described his new venture. People skeptically told Franco that he was insane for opening a restaurant in an area that had nothing and was told time and time again that people wouldn’t show up to the restaurant. Now, the town of Caiazzo is completely closed each Monday. Why? Because the town’s shining star, Franco Pepe and Pepe In Grani, is closed. A lively tourism culture has developed around Pepe In Grani to the point that Alberto Poretti, a banker born and raised in Milan who knows pizza as well as anyone, tells me Franco probably needs busses to go from large cities to the town that doesn’t even have a small train station. Alberto and his wife go to Franco at least twice a year to enjoy the food that he says “wasn’t much to Italians until a few years ago” when Enzo Coccia (at La Notizia in Naples) and Franco took the food to the next level, making it a gourmet food with unbelievable fanfare. Does Franco consider himself a celebrity? No, the public comes to Pepe In Grani in flocks, but he is just a “simple pizzaiolo,” according to him. But does Franco recognize that he is a hero to the town of Caiazzo? “Just a little.”
One thing that isn’t minimal is the level of distinctiveness in each bite of Franco’s pizzas. His “Margherita Sbagliata” is not your mother’s margherita. The pizza goes in the oven white with Mimmo’s bufala mozzarella and then is coated with raw tomatoes from La Sbecciatrice in Campania once out of the oven. Franco’s “Sfizio a Pomodori” is an explosion of flavor. With both sundried tomatoes and juicy cherry tomatoes, each bite is truly unique, sweet and tangy. Then there’s the Scarpetta, with a 12-month-old Grana cheese cream and shavings of 24-month Grana. The strength of the flavor, when washed down with beer produced solely for the use of Franco, is unlike anything you have ever tasted. Once you finish your meal at Pepe In Grani, disappointment will sink through your spine as you realize that you will likely not have another as special as the pies you just finished.
Franco’s pizzas aren’t the only thing that is special about his restaurant. The restaurant itself is on a level of its own. While downstairs patrons can see the pizzas fresh out of the oven, Franco ensures the upstairs diners have the same experience. In one of the upstairs rooms, a projector shows a livestream of the inside of the kitchen while the other room has a massive glass hole in the middle of the table to allow customers to look down and see the pizzas go in and out of the oven. Upstairs, amidst the dozens of books crowning Franco’s pizzas as one of the best in the world, are two bedrooms that Pepe In Grani uses as a bed and breakfast. The breakfast, including luscious lemon cake and baba (an airy Italian pastry soaked in rum that Mimmo compares his body to), is served at Pasticceria Sparono, which enjoys a successful stream of business from its neighboring pizzeria. Especially when sitting above a couple of pizza ovens, the rooms remind you of the Four Seasons with stylish design and complete amenities.
Aside from his own masterpieces, Franco tells me of the three pizzas that he believes hold a candle to his own. One counters Pepe’s in terms of individuality is Saporè in Verona. The different types of pizzas made by Renato Bosco, which there are a handful of, are truly delicious, but, like Franco’s, cannot be compared to any others. In the U.S., Franco jumps to express his satisfaction with two West Coast pizzerias. One, Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, but the other is one that was mentioned as soon as I arrived in Caiazzo, when Antonietta showed me bags of kernels from America sent by this pizzaiolo: Portland’s Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty. Franco and Lovely’s chef, Sarah Minnick, exchange ingredients from time to time. Like those in Caiazzo, the pizzas in Portland are artwork in Franco’s eyes. What truly impresses Franco is that Sarah makes American pizza, not imitation Italian pizza in America. Sarah says that Franco’s pizza was “the first [pizza] I felt was akin to my style,” being the similarity between their perspectives on local ingredients (“Lovely’s is inspired by pizza, but more West Coast inspired by the seasonal produce”). When Sarah and Franco joined forces to make a pizza together, there was little doubt as to what onion producer’s product they would use: Antonietta Melillo.