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Who's Fairfield's upper crust: Colony or Pepe's?

Published 10:32 am, Wednesday, July 20, 2011

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  • The Robotti family enjoys some pizza at Colony Grill in Fairfield on Friday, July 1, 2011. Photo: Lindsay Niegelberg / Connecticut Post
    The Robotti family enjoys some pizza at Colony Grill in Fairfield on Friday, July 1, 2011. Photo: Lindsay Niegelberg

 

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By Pat Gillespie

Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD — The town, already stocked with plenty of pizza options, is now in the middle of the big pie debate: white clam or hot oil?

Colony Grill, founded in Stamford, opened its second establishment in Fairfield last year. Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana opened its Fairfield restaurant in 2006 — the first Pepe’s outside of New Haven, where Mr. Pepe started it all in 1925.

The two establishments have very different pizza approaches.

Colony, founded as a post-Prohibition bar, uses a standard pizza oven, and Pepe’s uses a coal-fired brick oven. Colony offers toppings such as hot oil and stingers, while Pepe’s signature product is the white clam pie. Pepe’s offers — gasp — a salad. Colony does not.

“I think they’re uniquely different,” Ken Berry, CEO of the Frank Pepe Development Company, which operates the Fairfield restaurant, said of the pizza at Colony and Pepe’s.

Colony Fairfield owner Ken Martin takes pride in his restaurant’s identity as a tavern with a great “bar pie.” Pepe’s embraces the title of pizzeria. Colony Grill, founded in 1935, was bought by Eugene “Bo-Bo” Bohannon in 1961, and clings to its Irish heritage (an Irish clover is its symbol). Frank Pepe was from Maiori, Italy, along the Amalfi coast.

Both pies call Fairfield home now, though.

“I think the demographic here in Fairfield is just so exceptional,” Martin, said. “This just seemed to be the first good spot to go to. In hindsight, it was a good decision because Fairfield is unbelievable.”

With Fairfield Colony’s one-year anniversary recently passed — who is better in Fairfield, Colony or Pepe’s?

Mike Clark, of Naugatuck, and his girlfriend, Meredith White, arrived at Pepe’s one Tuesday evening for a pizza date. Clark, 26, recalls waiting three hours for a Pepe’s pizza in New Haven, claiming it was worth the wait. White maintains a similar loyalty.

“Colony is really thin. I feel like it doesn’t really have a lot of taste to it,” White, 27, said. “I like (Pepe’s) sauce better.”

John Raybin, of Greenwich, a Pepe’s customer since 1977, knew there was something special about his then-fiancée, Karen, upon their first Pepe’s pizza. “She loved it immediately, she goes ’wow’, her eyes closed. I said, ’I’m going to have to marry her.’ ”

Raybin likes Colony’s pizza, but prefers Pepe’s because of its white clam pie.

Fairfield resident Cheryl Bourdeau sees it differently. She drove down to Stamford on a weekly basis to have lunch at Colony with her husband when he worked there.

“It’s so good, it’s so nice and thin. It’s delicious,” said Bourdeau, a 40-year member of Colony’s clientele. “I like Colony better. I like the atmosphere and I like the pizza.”

Declan Curtin, 33, of Fairfield, visits Fairfield’s Colony about twice a week.

“I grew up on this stuff, eating it every Sunday,” Curtin said of his childhood memories at Stamford’s Colony. “The hot oil and tomato sauce here, you can’t beat it.”

The presence of two wildly popular pizza places begs the question, is Fairfield the new epicenter of Connecticut pizza, perhaps rivaling New Haven?

Molto, a chic, pizza-wine bar, opened up two years ago, preceding Colony. Downtown Fairfield also features Nauti Dolphin pizza at the train station, and Avellino’s and Mike’s Pizza, both on the Post Road. There is also Captain’s Pizza nearby.

One thing both Colony and Pepe’s have in common is that their owners wanted to replicate the taste of the pies served in their original establishments.

To identify the quality of pizza’s foundation — dough — Martin tested the pH level in Fairfield’s water to ensure it would match Stamford’s levels. Martin ordered the same pizza ovens his Stamford business partners have, eventually buying a third oven to keep up with demand. But Martin and his three co-owners — Paul Coniglio, Cody Lee and NHL player Chris Drury — decided to update the décor of Colony.

The original Colony in Stamford has a worn-in, plain appearance. Fairfield’s Colony has an immaculate bar with wide-screen TVs on one side and a family-restaurant setting with booths on the other. The Fairfield co-owners were on the 1989 Little League World Series championship squad from Trumbull, and some the team’s memorabilia adorns the walls.

Martin did maintain hardwood floors and several portraits of family and friends to remind customers of Colony’s original atmosphere. Like Stamford, Fairfield Colony’s kitchen is also closed to the public, just like its pizza recipes. Overall, the Fairfield establishment sports a younger image.

“We could have certainly tried to duplicate that exactly, but we just didn’t feel it would fit in Fairfield,” Martin said.

When opening the first Pepe’s outside New Haven, Berry decided to replicate the atmosphere as much as the pizza. The brick oven — open for viewing, the focal point of the restaurant — is designed to match the one in New Haven. All the furniture is custom ordered. The wood stain on the floors is even the same, along with the green, square-design ceiling.

To a first-timer, the pies at Pepe’s are strangely cut and not always round. The pies are handmade, and the varying sizes of pizza slices are a Pepe family tradition: the family pie. Big slices for mom and dad, small slices for the kids. Berry also tested the water in Fairfield in 2006 to make sure it replicated the water quality in New Haven. It did.

“We’re only as good as the last pizza we made,” Berry said. “The heart and soul of the pizza hasn’t changed in 87 years.”

Pepe’s white clam pie is served without tomato sauce, but is showered in its signature topping. The crust is burnt along the edges, with a crunchy outside and baked-dough inside. Colony’s hot oil pie is lathered in an olive oil infused with spices, an ingredient no other pizza parlor offers. Its crust is hard and brittle.

Berry chose Fairfield because of its proximity to the original Pepe’s and its location near Interstate 95. Martin and his co-owners broke ground here for its location on the Post Road and also because of the town’s diverse crowds — college kids and families.

According to Berry, when Colony opened, business at Pepe’s actually picked up more last summer than in previous years, a fact that may hint at Fairfield’s popularity as the state’s new, upcoming pizza capital.

“I wouldn’t say we’re the epicenter of pizza in Connecticut, but Fairfield’s getting to be a very close second,” Berry said.