When Pepe was just Franco

«I used to sell lifebuoys and unloaded post wagons. Modern pizzaioli should be born in the dining room, and then grow up in the kitchen»

02-09-2017

Franco Pepe in a photo from Californian website The Taste SF which carefully follows the best Italy has to offer, from San Francisco. The pazzaiolo from Caiazzo, wearing the apron already used at Identità di Pizza 2014 in Milan, is explaining and preparing his most famous pizza, Margherita sbagliata (photo www.thetastesf.com)

Franco Pepe, 54 though it doesn’t show, is now the number one pizza chef in the world and it’s easy to envy him and his Pepe in grani in Caiazzo, Caserta. If one were to take his place, however, he’d have to relive his first steps as well, or it would be too easy, and meaningless. Some memories will make you envious, like that time when he auditioned for a part in a film with Dalila Di Lazzaro and as an extra, he ended up taking the part of Jesus on the cross. Other memories are the result of lots of dreams and little money, like the summers spent in Rimini selling lifebuoys to mothers with children or the temp job at the post office. And not just any ordinary office, perhaps in Caiazzo, but in Milan’s Stazione Centrale.

«These contracts lasted three months. I’d work at night, in the station’s tunnels, unloading sacks of letters from the wagons. So as to avoid wounds, you had to avoid magazines, as they were tied with sharp laces. I slept during the day, and basically lived without seeing daylight. It was hard. There were bad people there. When wagons containing valuables arrived, there were security guards, so it was fine. Otherwise, it was best not to be alone. But there were special nights too. Sometimes they would film and light up some corner, as if it were daytime. One night, Celentano arrived. So energetic. When two years ago at Identità he presented the encyclopaedia of the 100 most important chefs, we were in the same station and I thought about where I was then, and where I am now. All my life passed in front of my eyes».

Three masters of Italian pizza at the presentation of 100 chef x 10 anni, i cento chef che hanno cambiato la cucina italiana in Milan’s Stazione Centrale. Left to right, Ciro Salvo, Renato Bosco and Franco Pepe

Three masters of Italian pizza at the presentation of 100 chef x 10 anni, i cento chef che hanno cambiato la cucina italiana in Milan’s Stazione Centrale. Left to right, Ciro Salvo, Renato Bosco and Franco Pepe

All your life… What is Franco Pepe’s recommendation, to a young man who wants to become a pizza chef these days?

«Start by working as a waiter. It is essential to know how to approach the dining room, and clients».

And then learn to knead.

«No, then they need to work in the kitchen. In restaurants. The better the place, the better. A contemporary pizzaiolo must know what he’s putting on the pizza. More and more often, even in pizzeria menus you can notice a product safeguarded by Slow Food or a consortium. Very well, but do those who use them know these products, or did they choose them because the brand would reassure their clients? For instance: if you buy the best San Marzano tomatoes and then use them in fried pizza, you’ve made a terrible mistake».

You learn by your mistakes…

«As long as you want to learn. In my pizza, it’s always a play with cold and hot, raw and cooked, soft and crispy. Not just to have fun, but to enhance each ingredient. Take Margherita Sbagliata. It was born because I had fantastic riccio tomatoes, very rich in polyphenols. If I’d bake them at 400°C, they’d be ruined. So I prepare them on the side, at 180°C, and add them after cooking the base».

When did you realise all this?

«It’s been a long journey. For instance, six years ago Identità asked me to present one of my pizzas during a dinner at Open Colonna in Rome, dedicated to five young chefs. I arrived with my dough and the desire to understand how those chefs worked, what techniques I could learn from them».

Fried calzone by Franco Pepe​

Fried calzone by Franco Pepe​

I suppose one should also never stop researching.

«Just like a cook must train with a starred chef, so a pizzaiolo must spend some time with Bonci, Bosco and Padoan, with the Neapolitan pizzaioli. They must understand the pizza universe, not just the pizza of a single colleague, thinking they know it all. One day I took the photos of the pizza Margherita made by the 10 best pizzaioli in Naples. There was not one that looked like the other, and this didn’t surprise me. It was their interpretation. If you have character, you’ll keep away from regulations. Just look at Salvo, Sorbillo and Coccia and you’ll see».

If one wants to see…

«Some things are in contrast, because many people don’t pay enough attention. For instance, all the best pizzaioli are also artisans who offer an artisanal product which can vary by definition. Sometimes there will be mistakes. But then everyone would like identical pizzas, as though they came out of a factory. This is not possible for us».

What is a pizzaiolo, above all?

«A baker. The rest follows. If you cannot roll out an even disc, there’s a big problem».

Young cooks should acquire experience abroad. How about young pizzaioli?

«They should do the same. For two reasons: they must learn English, learn new techniques and raw materials. They must work in the kitchens of restaurants, not in pizzerias. When you meet someone with that extra oomph, they’ve been abroad».

The scene you can enjoy at sunset from the terrace at Pepe in grani, Franco Pepe’s pizzeria in Caiazzo, Caserta

The scene you can enjoy at sunset from the terrace at Pepe in grani, Franco Pepe’s pizzeria in Caiazzo, Caserta

Does Franco Pepe ever wonder what the pizza industry, and pizza itself, will be like in ten or twenty years’ time?

«The more pizza chefs will follow their identity, the more novelties we’ll have. I know that some people present Margherita Sbagliata. I’m flattered in part. It means I did something good. But I always tell my son Stefano that he should take his own road. He must be Stefano Pepe, just like I left my father so as not to be his son forever. Real training schools, catering schools well-deserving their mission, places that can welcome Romito and Cracco but also Coccia and Padoan will also be necessary. I’m working hard so that there will be more places like those in Castel Volturno and Piedimonte Matese. The pizza chef of the future will be more and more a chef, but also a baker, a bread maker. However, the 55 hours of training offered by catering schools are not enough to teach, and not enough to learn».

Last question: what should clients expect, when at Pepe in Grani? What should they ask for?

«I’d like people not to order a pizza just to eat it by themselves. This way they’ll never learn the journey that I’ve designed for them with my son and collaborators. The ideal table is a table for six, so you can serve a slice each, like in a tasting menu. Crowded tables aren’t difficult. Tables for two are difficult. Alternating pizzas is not easy. You work with dough, you pay lots of attention and you’re usually repaid with the results. For us it’s a big satisfaction. Like on the last Saturday before the holidays: 1000 pizzas in one night».
Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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