When 6:50 came along, I turned the lights off in my room at the bed and breakfast, and headed back around the corner to the world’s greatest pizza place, Pepe in Grani. When I showed up this time the air smelt of tomatoes and olive oil, and the corridor was lined with people waiting to get in. I walked up to the door, which was now wide open with an Italian, female bouncer, complete with rope and a guest list, guarding the entrance. I approached the girl and was greeted with a polite, “Prego?”
“I have a reservation for 7:00.,” I replied.
“Cooke?,” she said.
I nodded and she replied, “right this way.” I followed her in and she left me with the Maitre D’ who then passed me off to a waitress that led me upstairs.
The second floor was a white room with low lighting, eight tables, a wall of windows, and a projector. The projector was pointed at the wall opposite where I was seated and projected a live feed of the kitchen. On the wall were three men, none of them Franco Pepe, working a pizza assembly line in front of a large pizza oven. I sat and watched hoping to gleam some bit of information that would help me get into that world. It was at this moment that I was greeted by a different female waitress. She asked me, in Italian, what I wanted to drink. I replied in English. She apologized in English and then asked me to wait one second. She then brought me my liter of still water and I asked her for a pizza recommendation. She said, “Oh, I’m not your waiter.”
“That’s okay. Which is your favorite?”
“But I’m not your waiter.,” she said again.
“That’s fine. I still want to know.”
“Well, I can’t take your order, but this one is my favorite.” She pointed out a pizza with three different kinds of cheese, tomato sauce, and thin slices of parmesan on top. I thanked her and continued to look at the menu.
A few minutes after she walked away, a tall, Italian man walked up and introduced himself. “Hello, my name is Daniel, I will be your waiter. Is this your first time eating here?”
“Yes.,” I replied.
“Okay. Would you like any recommendations?”
“Sure! But, uh, sono vegetariano. No carne, no pesce.”
“Ah! Okay, well, this one is good.” He pointed to one with mozzarella di buffala, fresh cherry tomatoes, and sun dried tomatoes.
“Okay.,” I said.
“You want to have that one?, ” he replied.
“Sure! But can I also get the bruschetta?”
“Of course.,” he replied.
As he walked away, I continued watching the projection on the wall. I watched each of the three men as they prepared pizza after pizza. The man closest to the camera was pressing out the dough. He wasn’t pressing them into large circles, as I had seen other people do in the past, but he was doing two passes, in a straight line, across the pizza. Then, he’d briefly move the dough back and forth over his clinched fists before passing off the dough to the next person in the line. The next person would briefly stretch the dough a little more before applying the toppings and spreading out the pizza on the paddle, which the third man was holding. Then, the third man would slide the pizza into the roaring oven before pulling out the previous pizza. I watched, mesmerized, lost in thought, until Daniel came back with my bruschetta.
The bruschetta was colorful, but unassuming. A small piece of toast with bright red tomatoes, minced basil, and olive oil. The flavor was intense, and the tomatoes tasted unlike any tomato I had ever had. They were incredibly sweet yet acidic. And the olive oil only elevated the flavors, but could also easily stand on its own. (I would later find out that the olive oil was made from locally grown olives and that you could only buy it in local shops.)
My first imoression was, “that looks smaller than I was expecting.” The first bite immediately erased any negatives I perceived in the pizza. The cheese and tomato were perfectly balanced, with the fresh tomatoes gently bursting in my mouth over the smoothness of the cheese and the slight smokiness of the sun dried tomatoes. The crust, that I had watch the assembly line quickly press out and dress, was somehow softer than any other pizza I had ever had. And although the crust was thicker than all the pizza I had had in Italy, it was still somehow lighter than all the pizza I had had.
After I finished half the pizza, I knew I had to come back a second night and try another pizza.
After I finished my pizza, Daniel brought me the bill and told me I could pay it up front, near the door. I thanked him, forgetting about the promise of meeting Franco Pepe, and made my way to the front desk to pay my bill and make a reservation for the next night.
It wasn’t until I got back to my room at the bed and breakfast that I realized I missed out on connecting with Franco Pepe and made a mental note to not forget again.