vicolo San Giovanni Battista
Today, while pizza chefs are becoming the new stars, with nothing to envy to the most famous chefs, Franco Pepe claims for himself the role of craftsman and baker. A craftsman oriented towards innovation, continuous study, experimentation of doughs and bakings, of course, but, at the same time, tied to tradition, of Campania and of his family. All his teachers - apart from Piergiorgio Giorilli, a great name in Italian baking – are family, starting from his grandfather, Ciccio, who in the Thirties, when he was a bailiff in a local farm, used to come back home with some wheat to be milled to feed his family: on the way back from the war in Libya, he opened a bakery where he sold bread and popular food.
That's where everything starts: the passion, mastery and great experience of Franco, inherited, together with his brothers Antonio and Massimiliano, from his grandfather and his father, Stefano. Based on the gestures of the latter, observed thousands and thousands of times – taking no notes, nor writing down formulas or recipes, not even using a scale - Franco has started to make his own pizza, which continues do be literally taylor made: no ready made blends of flours, no kneading machine. The dough is created day by day, changing flours, leaven times, quantity of yeast (a mixture of mother yeast and barm, to guarantee the necessary elasticity to work and manually stretch the Neapolitan pizza) in order to have a product as possibly constant, despite the changing variables intervening, such as the humidity and outside temperature.
The hand made dough is not a quirk, to Franco it is fundamental: only the sensitivity – with reference to touch, to the sensual experience – of the pizza maker can tell when one has obtained the ideal dough, when there are still humid areas asking for flour, when it's ready to be stretched and doesn't want to be touched any more, or the dough becomes stiff. «You can't impose a unique, mechanical technique, you have to “listen” to what the dough suggests, after all it's like a baby», he says. In other words, his pizza is almost primeval, created virtually without electricity – from the hands to the wood shavings in the oven – and truly delicious. Even with his condiments, there are no Pindaric flights, just territory – the one North of Caserta – and lots of tradition, from the mastunicola (the primeval pizza made with cheese, basil and pepper) to the calzone filled with prickly lettuce, leaving always enough space to the dough, the true protagonist of the pizza. And then there's lots of research, to improve constantly, and translate the tastes inherited from his family Dna and from his land into a knowledge to be transmitted also to the others, whether they'd be colleagues, clients or young apprentices. In October 2012, the great solo adventure: the opening of Pepe in Grani in Caiazzo. In 6 years’ time he becomes a world pizza stars. They call him from every corner of the world. And he continues to have new ideas (the Authentica dining room, Margherita Sbagliata, a global cult), with the usual humbleness.
a journalist born in Naples now living in Rome, she tries to make her three passions meet: eating, travelling and writing
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Nancy Silverton was the guest of Franco Pepe and his Pepe In Grani, for the Authentica 10 dinner series, celebrating ten years since the pizzeria's opening (2012-2022)
All photos are by Brambilla-Serrani
Paolo Marchi’s words representing the Identità Milano 2023 congress. All photos from Brambilla-Serrani