There is no pizza like Franco Pepe’s. Nowadays everywhere is accessible, but the best pizza in the world still gets you on the road to explore the old, narrow, cobbled alleys of Caiazzo. For food travellers, it’s always worth the effort.
The Best Pizza in the World
Opened in 2012, Pepe in Grani in Caiazzo, Campania, Italy, with Franco Pepe at the helm, has won numerous world awards and has been hailed as the best pizza in the world by the global media.
Franco Pepe has pizza running through his veins. Having learned pizza making from his father and grandfather, this third generation pizza master has taken his family’s business to the highest level of pizza craftsmanship while placing greater emphasis on ingredients and promoting the slow food movement that began in Italy. Audiences around the world have learned of him through shows like Netflix’s Ugly Delicious, but it was kind of hard for me to accept that the host David Chang gave Franco Pepe fewer minutes than Domino’s.
Pepe in Grani is housed in a historic three-storey stone-walled building with various dining areas, private dining rooms and spectacular views. This pizza pilgrimage to Caiazzo was an amazing experience. Apart from using ingredients sourced from local farmers and producers, Pepe goes to great lengths to source the best local DOP-certified ingredients, such as tomatoes and other vegetables, mozzarella, fruits as well as olive oil.
The One and Only Dough Magic
As Franco Pepe explained to us, the magic of his pizza starts with the flour, a unique blend made to his precise specifications. All the dough is left to settle in a special wooden box for well over 12 hours, during which time it becomes so extensible as if it was breathing. Caiazzo can make over a thousand pizzas each night.
Pepe places great emphasis on the seasonality of food. He told us that autumn is the best time for ingredients, so I promised myself that I must come back in autumn. We ordered the tasting menu to try to have a more complete tour of Pepe’s glorious pizzas. Having heard so many stories about him, this time my quest could finally be fulfilled.
The fried pizza “Sensazione di Costiera” at the beginning of the dinner was already enticing. It had garlic, local fresh tomato, chilli pepper, “Cetara” anchovies, parsley and lemon zest. It was flavourful, spicy, crispy and chewy at the same time. My knowledge about pizza was renewed instantly – “so that’s how good it can be” – my soul thrilled with excitement.
Next up was fried cone pizza “Ciro”, which had a crunchy crust stuffed with melted 12 months aged Grana Padano DOP cheese cream, rocket pesto, and “caiazzana” dehydrated olive. The flavour was rich, sharp and intensely structured; it’s recommended to suck out the sauce a bit while taking a bite as if eating a Soup Dumpling like a pro, but of course you may not want to eat it too slow if you want to enjoy its best temperature.
Margherita Sbagliata is Franco Pepe’s iconic pizza. “Sbagliata” means “wrong” in Italian. So why using the word here? Franco’s pizza margherita is a unique twist on the traditional version, featuring DOP buffalo mozzarella cheese as the base while all the toppings – baked local tomato sauce, basil sauce and extra virgin olive oil – are added only when the pizza comes out of the oven. Exactly the opposite of the traditional procedure.
A pizza that showcases the beauty of the ingredients, “La Scarpetta” is prepared with buffalo mozzarella cheese, tomatoes compote, freeze-dried basil and once out of the oven, 24 month aged Grana Padano DOP cheese shaved in fine slices. “The idea for Scarpetta was actually inspired by my good friend Pietro Zito from restaurant Antichi Sapori in Puglia. Once he made a pasta dish for me with tomato sauce and basil leaves, but what’s wonderful was the electrifying combination of warm pasta and cold tomato sauce in my mouth and I said to Pietro, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to make a pizza with a similar concept.’ So I made La Scarpetta.” Franco said. His Scarpetta was awarded the dish of the year 2017 prize at the culinary convention Identitá golose, which was very significant as that was the first time that such a prize was awarded to a pizzaiolo instead of a restaurant chef. Franco said, “I should share my honour with my great friend Pietro.”
The next was “Calzone con Scarola Riccia”. Calzones are sometimes referred to as folded over pizzas or inside-out pizzas which originated in Napoli in the 18th century. Here the filling was curly escarole, anchovies from the coast, capers, and Caiazzo black olives. With fresh seasonal vegetables whiffing in a hint of bitterness, the pizza was surprisingly refreshing and full of summer vibes.
The unforgettable pizza feast ended with a sweet fried pizza with Crisommola apricot from the Mount Vesuvius area outside Napoli. My other half is a true pizza lover and we’ve tried a lot of gourmet pizzas together. I just never thought I’d be able to let myself go completely carb-unconscious on this ultimate pizza meal. Franco Pepe’s pizzas are worth it.
When we were in the kitchen I couldn’t help but notice the fryer – it looked very similar to the kind a tempura chef would use. Apart from the amazing toppings, I was stunned by how neatly the pizza dough was done. The tempura I tried in Tokyo was similarly good, but except that I would have never imaged that it was possible to create such a smooth and clean fried pizza dough. I’ve heard so many gourmets tell me that Franco’s pizzas are out of this world. I now get to know what they mean in real terms.
Authentica – A Special Pizza Space for Eight
“Authentica is a space for me to express myself freely and for people to get to know Franco Pepe both from a human and a professional point of view.” Pepe said.
Pepe mentioned that his father used to discuss passionately about pizza with his friends or customers after work. As a great connoisseur of the local terroir, he would source the best ingredients to put onto pizzas, including porcini and oregano from The Matese mountains around Caiazzo. Flavours and aromas are his narratives. That’s how Franco came up with the idea of Authentica.
“Ten years ago I would never have imagined creating Authentica, where in addition to my pizzas, there are also great wines. Pizza has always been seen as a popular, everyday food, and that’s changed by Authentica.” he said.
Franco Pepe has worked with over 25 Michelin-starred chefs here. “They create their own recipes on pizza and they love this kind of collaboration. They incorporate pizza making ideas and work passionately behind a workbench, for a beautiful night and a table of eight guests.” Here you can listen to the story behind the pizza, watch Franco Pepe make his famous pizzas and enjoy as they are cooked in an oven heated to 500℃ in less than 30 minutes. A place where it is possible to pair good food and good wine with intimacy and exclusivity.
“It’s a place to create, innovate, come and make pizzas together. That’s Authentica.” Authentica is a cultural space where he can reflect upon the 10 years of running the business, and the days when he used to make pizzas with his father.
Downstairs, Pepe in Grani makes over 1000 pizzas each evening and has over 500 diners visiting every day. Yet few people would expect there are rooms on the top floor of a pizzeria for overnight stays. For Franco Pepe, Authentica is a special place that offers his handmade pizzas based on the slow food concept. The space is reserved only for special guests and is only used a few nights a month. It is said that celebrities and top persons from all over the world come from far and wide to this place.
Tasty and Healthy Mediterranean Pizza Menu
For some years Pepe and his multi-disciplinary team have undertaken a path aimed at revolutionising the most popular dish in the world by balancing carbohydrates, proteins and fats while adding dietary fibers from vegetables served in an extra plate. He has recently joined efforts with universities and Italian Association for Cancer Research to further promote the concept of healthy eating. In 2017 Pepe was elected Ambassador of the Mediterranean Diet, and has since been applying this philosophy to all his pizzas.
For those coming from neighbouring cities such as Rome and Naples, the most direct way to get to Caiazzo is by car. It’s a 50km drive from Naples, but the journey is a beautiful one. If you’re lucky, you can secure one of the two rooms on the top of the pizzeria.
As a strong proponent of the local food movement, Franco Pepe uses DOP ingredients. He commands with passion in the kitchen and demands excellence from himself, his staff and his production. His creation embraces seasonality, a hallmark of the slow food movement. As a brave and determined food traveller, being able to drive a few hours to taste the best pizza in the world is truly a once in a lifetime experience.
A great pizzaiolo and true artist, Franco Pepe takes the art of pizza making to the next level and has lived up to his name as the world’s number one.