Franco Pepe is turning to tech to save pizza
Any discussion of the pizza of Italy’s Franco Pepe begins with the dough. Made entirely by hand, without even a mixer, the dough at his restaurant, Pepe in Grani, about 30 miles north of Naples, comes together in traditional madia boxes, their unvarnished pine sides slanted outward to help the mixing and kneading of flour, water and live yeast from his yearsold starter. The dough then rests covered in these wooden boxes and ferments. When the lid comes off, one of the most beautiful living substances in all of food is revealed.
Just check out the recent Pepe episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table: Pizza,” which begins with shots of the dough in slow motion, oozing with bubbles like L.A.’s seething La Brea Tar Pits. It’s no surprise that “artisan” is a descriptor frequently associated with Pepe, whose woodfired pizzas are topped almost exclusively with ingredients grown and produced in the countryside surrounding Caiazzo, the city where the restaurant sits.
“When I opened my pizzeria, I swore to myself that I’d put my region on my pizza,” he says in the “Chef’s Table” episode, speaking like a true Slow Food hero.
“For me, after the wood-fired oven, the electric oven is next. It’s the ideal alternative.”
— Franco Pepe
Indeed, Pepe in Grani was named the world’s best pizzeria three years in a row (2017 through 2019) by the 50 Top Pizza guide, leading the way for other innovators such as Francesco Martucci’s I Masanielli in nearby Caserta. And in September, for the second consecutive year, Pepe was named the world’s best pizza chef in the Best Chef Awards.
So what is this artisan pizza chef doing in Los Angeles talking about electric ovens and dehydrators? Why has he been spending time with nutritionists? And why did he give a speech in Madrid this past fall to discuss the ways science can help lead the way toward the future of pizza?
“I’m always challenging myself,” Pepe says through a translator after a photo shoot inside the L.A. home of “Chef’s Table” executive producer and director Brian McGinn. One recent challenge: to restore the reputation of the nowout-of-favor pizza capricciosa. In the 1970s and ’80s pizza capricciosa was one of Italy’s most popular dishes. Today, it’s considered an old-fashioned pizza, an emptythe-refrigerator pie weighed down with too many toppings — artichokes, mushrooms, olives, prosciutto cotto, tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and sometimes capers and anchovies — basically, a less organized version of a quattro stagioni.
“The pizza maker would just put everything on the dough and throw it in the oven,” Pepe says. “It was too much.” Often, even the fresh herbs would go into the oven and lose their vitality.
Pepe also noticed that the pizza frequently was soggy in the middle. That’s because most of the ingredients contain large percentages of water — olives, he says, are 70% water; tomatoes, 95%; mozzarella, 58%.