The upper crust of pizza-makers

Famous Italian chef spices up WSO fundraiser


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Jordan Brown got the kind of wake-up call Saturday morning that even his dreams had never delivered.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/11/2017 (1731 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Jordan Brown got the kind of wake-up call Saturday morning that even his dreams had never delivered.

The call to alert the young video editor that his culinary hero was in town had come from his friend, Miranda Alfred.

She had received the news herself in the form of birthday present; a ticket to meet the celebrated Italian whom Food & Wine magazine once anointed “the modern day oracle of pizza.” The ticket also came with an opportunity to taste slices of what the magazine referred to as “maybe the greatest pizza in the world.”

Laurie Brand photo Franco Pepe and his biggest local fan, APTN video editor Jordan Brown.

“I never thought Franco Pepe himself would come to Winnipeg,” Brown, an Aboriginal Peoples Television Network editor, said later Saturday, after he had spoken with the man himself and sampled the pizza Brown reverently refers to as “art.”

Pepe appeared in the kitchen of the Red Ember Common at The Forks on an afternoon when the Jets were playing here and Portage Avenue was being blocked off for the Santa Claus Parade, but word-of-mouth and promotion by Red Ember partners Quin Ferguson and Steffen Zinn helped draw a crowd of the curious and adoring fans like Brown.

Well, maybe not quite as adoring as Brown.

Laurie Brand photo Franco Pepe serves up the ‘Marinara Mastro Stefano,’ one of his father’s pizzas, in Winnipeg Saturday.

“As soon as I walked in the room, I felt my heart going,” Brown recalled.

By that time, he had already engaged Pepe as the pizza craftsman was dressing his sumptuous pizzas and taking questions from the crowd gathered round the chef’s-table seating.

“Where did he get inspired growing up?” Brown asked loudly through interpreter Marisa Costa.

Laurie Brand photo Franco Pepe and son Stefano Pepe (background right), who is working with his father as the fourth generation of dough makers from the small Roman town of Caiazzo, an hour northeast of the Italian pizza capital of Naples.

As it happened Pepe’s answer — the family story and his pursuit of the perfect pizza — is inspiring.

He is in Winnipeg, via a business stop in Toronto, at the invitation of a Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) board member who got to know him and his life story while visiting his restaurant Pepe in Grani. As for Brown’s question, Pepe would answer it more fully during the lull between the $40 cost for a few slices of pizza and a glass of wine during the lunch hour and a WSO charity dinner set in a space behind the Red Ember Common, where some couples paid as much as $1,000 to sample a fuller range of pizza offerings and the wine supplied by Banville & Jones Wine Co. owner Tina Jones.

Pepe’s “growing-up” story really begins before he was born.

Caiazzo is an old Roman town, an hour northeast of the Italian pizza capital of Naples.

As the story goes, it was in Caiazzo where, during the Second World War, the bread made by Pepe’s grandfather, who was the town baker, sustained and even kept the locals from starving. Pepe’s father would learn bread making from his own father. But, by the 1950s, Pepe’s grandfather and father had started making pizzas on the weekend.

In 1961, his father married and opened a town pizzeria that someone told his dad would be closed in two weeks. But working day and night, — and eventually with the help of his oldest son, Franco, and the two brothers who would follow — the family made a living. All three boys would go on to have other careers — Franco as a teacher — and keep the restaurant going. But it was the oldest son whose passion would compel him to leave the family restaurant behind. He had learned to make pizza from his father. Now Franco wanted and needed to make his own.

So five years ago, he found an abandoned 18th-century building in an economically struggling town in an economically struggling country, took out a bank loan, and went it alone. Except for seven workers who stayed with him even though Pepe told them at the beginning he didn’t know when he could pay them.

Today, he has 40 workers, and people from throughout Italy, and throughout the world, line up in a narrow alley that leads to the front door of his restaurant to experience Pepe’s pizza.

Jordan Brown had a follow-up question on Saturday afternoon as Pepe — as a homage to his late father Stefano and his style of pizza — was making a Marinara Mastro Stefano.

“And what inspires him every day to do what he loves?” he asked Pepe through the interpreter.

That answer, more fully detailed later, uncovered a subject more sensitive than Pepe’s never-ending quest for the perfect pizza. It starts with his father’s death. His father collapsed while putting together a crib in anticipation of the birth of Pepe’s son. Two days later, on the day his grandson was born, Stefano Pepe was buried.

They named the baby boy after his grandfather.

Young Stefano Pepe, now 21, is with his father in Winnipeg, the fourth generation of family pizza craftsmen, working and learning quietly in the background, which, Pepe said, is the way his son prefers it.

“He’s very esteemed, even by famous chefs,” Pepe said proudly of his son.

That’s because his son is even more creative than Pepe. So says the father.

But all his son wants to do is work in the kitchen. Pepe explained that it’s difficult being “the son of.”

“Because everybody who’s the son of anybody who has made a name for themselves has had a lot of difficulty.” So he has told Stefano that if he wants to stay on his path, he has to make his own way. Create his own style of pizza. As Pepe did after learning to make his father’s pizza.

So, to answer Jordan Brown’s second question, that’s what really inspires Franco Pepe every day to do what he loves. Because what he loves most is working with the son he loves. That’s the relationship that matters most to Franco Pepe. Even more than the pursuit of the ever more perfect pizza.

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