What is road food? This term can mean so many different things to so many people. To some it may mean a large, specific fast food chain, often more than once daily. To others it may mean finding something quick to eat wherever and whenever they can while they’re on the go; between flights, on your way to the airport, to the rental car place, or to and from work. Road food can be driving around San Diego on a Monday night trying to decide which place will disappoint you the least. And yet others may take it upon themselves to find the out-of-the way barbecue joints or the homegrown burger stops. You can find good road food (and bad), in spots all over the country. Small towns, roadside food stands, highway rest stops and airports are all good candidates for road food gems.
I don’t subscribe to the theory that to find good road food you have to be in the middle of nowhere, in a place no one has ever heard of where the pitmaster has three generations of barbecue tutelage under his belt. All that is required for good road food is good, solid food made with love. To me, cooking with love is stirring your risotto with a wooden spoon the way your wrinkled Italian grandmother taught you to, or that creamy potato and ham soup that needs to be cooked just so, with the ham diced like this, not that. How could something like ham cut to a certain size be so important? How can grandma be so finicky about using a wooden spoon for this particular dish? Its special considerations like these that make locals want to keep their tortilleria or their local sausage shop a secret from outsiders, creating a legend quietly in their backyard.
A legend in its own right, Frank Pepe is a pizzeria born in New Haven, Connecticut. Their pizza is nothing short of regional and sometimes national lore, some claim it to be the birthplace of pizza in The States. Now boasting five locations in the New Haven area, Pepe’s original location, The Spot, shares a block with their archrival Sally’s Apizza. Lines to get into one of these celebrated pizzerias often extend out the door and down the block. Like a true rivalry, this is a Red Sox-Yanks or Giants-Eagles saga; a true follower of one would never be caught supporting the other. I would imagine it’s the type of competition that could easily ruin relationships. What makes these places so great is their love for what they do. Actually, a nephew of Frank Pepe’s who worked for him loved the product and the business so much, he started slinging his own pies down the street at a little place now called Sally’s Apizza.
Although I’ve had opportunities to try Sally’s, I find myself pining for Pepe’s every time I’m in town. On a recent business trip, we stopped into one of Pepe’s newer locations. Although the original location in New Haven was in the opposite direction, we were able to make our way to the Fairfield pizzeria. You are immediately transported to another place and time when you walk in the door. The coal fired oven is dutifully attended to, and the pizzas are thrust into it with a pizza peel the size of an oar that could easily propel a Viking ship. The crust is light, slightly charred, crispy and chewy at the same time, while the sauce tempts the diner with a hint of sweetness and coincides wonderfully with the smokiness of the crust provided by the über- hot oven. The silky mozzarella cheese is just enough to blanket the pizza, and is melted to bubbly perfection. Ours was topped with chunky sausage and sweet peppers, which gave each bite nice texture. The pizza is sliced into no certain pattern; my guess is this is to provide the “middle-only” eaters with some choices, as well as options for smaller pieces, triangle and square-eating diners. The pizza here is not heavy or overly greasy, it doesn’t make you want a nap immediately afterwards. The rustic crust, the slightly sweet sauce, and the simplicity of the process and ingredients are what prove this pizza has been made with care for decades. And now, Frank Pepe’s is finding a way to bring these decades of perseverance and deliciousness to the masses. Cashing in on the fact that we as Americans are often on the go, Pepe’s has expanded and opened locations that cater to that fact. Spots like this can be found all over the world, in every state in America, and provide us with food experiences we talk about years after the fact. Good road food has heart, is made with love and in my case, usually includes cheese.