Franco Pepe’s fried pizza with flavors of the Amalfi coast at Pepe in Grani in Caiazzo. Photo: Jill Hannon

I tried some of the world’s best pizza in the middle of the night

Jill Hannon

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I did not plan to eat pizza in the middle of the night but 10:30 pm was the only available reservation at Pepe in Grani in Caiazzo when we booked three weeks in advance. Given that we then waited half an hour past our reservation to get in, I was in the middle of my meal at midnight. We left the pizzeria at 1 am.

If you like food television and have Netflix, then you’ve likely seen the new Chef’s Table on pizza. The series takes an in-depth look at the careers of six pizza makers and the challenges they overcame to build their careers, as well as some of the consequences of success. The show isn’t about the best pizza makers or the best pizzerias, rather it shares the unique and often emotional stories of six pizza chefs.

Yet one of the chefs stands out, Franco Pepe. Pepe won The Best Chef’s best pizza maker in the world award in 2021 and 2022. As with the other chefs, his path to fame involved hardship and sacrifice. At one point, he allegedly left his wife and children for 6 or 7 years to master pizza alone. His son works with him now but the episode never makes it clear what happened with his wife.

Anyway, it's not the drama that made him stand out. It’s the dough. He kneads his dough entirely by hand in a traditional Italian ‘madia’ which is a wooden box originally used in Calabria to make bread. The box provides the right environment, including humidity and temperature to increase the activity of yeast and the production of carbon dioxide resulting in a faster and higher rise.

The quality of ingredients and toppings get a lot of attention in Chef’s Table but it's only in Pepe’s episode that the dough is front and center — and entirely kneaded by hand. If you’ve worked in a professional kitchen you know that this is a rare feat. And in the madia, the dough is a beautiful, bubbling, living sight to behold.

Toppings are a critical component of any great pizza, but it’s really all about the dough–what it’s made from, how it’s made, how it’s cooked, its final texture and structure, and what it tastes like. This is exemplified in the classic Margherita from Naples which is topped with only tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil, and olive oil. That’s it and the sweet acidic backdrop of tomatoes played against the fat, creamy, melted mozzarella fiordilatte, with only a touch of basil flare, makes the Margherita the perfect pizza, assuming it has a fantastic crust.

Pepe’s pizzeria, Pepe in Grani, is located in the city of Caiazzo in Campania, about a two-hour drive south of Rome, and one-hour northeast of Naples. My boyfriend and I wanted to go for years but it’s not in the most convenient location for us. Then we watched the Netflix episode and opened a browser and made a reservation. It was time.

Work commitments had us on the road in our little red panda at the worst possible time, 5 pm on a Friday. We obviously got stuck in traffic. Nor was the Panda designed for the three-lane highway, loaded with trailer trucks, that connects Rome to Naples. Add rain, fog, and thick darkness and it took us over three stressful hours to reach Caiazzo. Some sections of the highway were being repaved and didn’t have dividing lines. Have you ever been on a busy three-lane highway in the fog with no lines to follow? Other sections had double lines that shifted and gave differing instructions as monstrous trucks hurdled past. Needless to say, we ordered the full-tasting menu for sixty-five dollars each when we reached the pizzeria alive. We earned it. And next time, we’re going to take the train.

Caiazzo is a small, elegant hilltop city complete with a castle and refined bas-relief ornamentation on some of the windows that line the narrow road that runs through the center of town. In the evenings, the historic center is closed to traffic and cats scurry about the empty streets.

But we found all the people when we wound our way down the narrow stone alleyway to the entrance to Pepe in Grani. The doorway was teeming with anxious people waiting for a table. It felt more like a nightclub than a restaurant. Some were smoking. Some were dressed to go clubbing. A meticulous blonde with bone-straight hair and trendy boots eyed the doorway between puffs of smoke. Two young men in sneakers cleverly found a spritz to go at a nearby bar. An older woman dressed all in white laughed loudly while teetering on a treacherous pair of strappy purple platform shoes. Most were Italian. All had a look of hunger and hope that they would soon get a table, ourselves included. A roped-off area protected the hostess from the partygoers and was only opened when another lucky group of diners won a table or a happily-fed couple exited amidst our jealous glares.

Although we had reserved a table, we still waited thirty minutes past our reservation to get in. Once inside, we were asked to wait again in a chaotic foyer. Franco Pepe made a brief appearance to charm a large gathering of businessmen in matching grey suits and one tall bronzed and heavily made-up woman in transparent high heels. That was the only time we saw Pepe before the group was whisked upstairs with us trailing behind trying to chase a waitress who had nodded at us and vanished. Pepe looked exactly as he does in the Netflix Series, a slender bespectacled pizza man with slightly stooped shoulders and a congenial air.

Our original reservation was for the terrace but they moved us inside as there was lightning in the forecast. The restaurant is large and on multiple floors. We sat one story up in a brightly lit room with lots of young people. Pizza in and around Naples is surprisingly cheap. A classic Margherita can still be had for about six dollars and Pepe’s Margherita was no exception which means it's great for large groups of kids on small budgets.

The terrace and a special room are reserved for the tasting menus and for folks like us that endure a perilous three-hour drive to spend a significant amount of money on a potentially once-in-a-lifetime experience. The regular dining room on the other hand was a pizzeria chock full of kids out late on a Friday night, at least in the room where we sat. Eating the tasting menu in the casual pizzeria felt out of balance. Were the kids smarter? Should we have ordered pizzas and spent ten or fifteen bucks each instead of sixty-five? I’m glad we ordered the tasting menu but next time we’re going to be more strategic.

The full-tasting menu was substantial. It included a serving of three fried pizzas, seven standard pizzas, one calzone, a plate of fried dough, and oddly, a strawberry spritz. I did try everything that night but somewhere around the glistening calzone lined with raw greens, Cetara anchovies, and local black olives, I caved. It was too much food for me in the middle of the night. I couldn’t eat it all.

The pizza crust was phenomenal and well worth the foggy life-threatening drive and the bumper-to-bumper traffic we endured to get there. It was delicious and structured with significant height and plenty of fluff and air and breathability. But most unexpectedly, it was silky. I didn’t know that a pizza crust could be silky. The texture shimmered and cascaded like a silk sheet. It was extraordinary. So soft.

I ate a slice of the La Scarpetta pizza with buffalo mozzarella, Grana Padano cheese, raw tomato compote, and freeze-dried basil pesto in absolute awe. Scarpetta means little slipper in Italian and it’s the word used to describe the act of scraping the very last bit of sauce off a plate with a piece of bread, the metaphorical little slipper.

The La Scarpetta pizza was cooked with the mozzarella and then the tomato compote was arranged on top after it came out of the oven in decorative quenelles, that gentle shape sculpted with two spoons and often reserved for ice creams and mousses. Finished with bright dashes of basil pesto and crumbled Grana Padano, the pizza was in fact redolent of scraping the last delectable drops of sauce off a dinner plate. Only the crust was worthy of being Cinderella’s slipper.

The fried pizza was exceptional too. It was light and airy with minimal oil absorption and the perfect amount of chew. Our first slice of pizza that night was fried and topped with flavors of the nearby Amalfi coast. A thin slice of a juicy red tomato was amped up with powdered garlic, chili pepper, Cetara anchovies, parsley, and lemon zest. Pepe pairs the fried pizza with a strawberry spritz which together was reminiscent of a donut. I’m not a strawberry spritz type or much of a donut eater but I am probably in the minority here.

One of Pepe’s signature pizzas is a Margherita sbagliata or mistaken Margherita. Recognizing that tomatoes are a magnificent ingredient, Pepe didn’t see the point of roasting them in a wildly hot oven. He also noticed that the basil often seems an afterthought and that some people even discard it. He, therefore, bakes his wrong Margherita with mozzarella only and then adds a tomato puree and a basil reduction after the pizza comes out of the oven. I still prefer the classic Margherita but it was a curious inversion.

I tried a taste of the fried dessert pizza that my boyfriend raved over and which was topped with lemon-flavored buffalo ricotta, Vesuvian apricot jam, toasted hazelnuts, local powdered olives, and fresh mint. But it came so late in the meal that I had trouble eating it. I was full and it was long past midnight.

We left the restaurant at 1 am. I had wisely booked an apartment a three-minute walk away. I was exhausted and full and happy to collapse.

Of course, a phenomenal pizza is as much about taste and texture as it is about digestibility. Although we ate a lot of food that night, the crust was so light and agreeable that even with three slices of fried pizza and a plate of fried dough, we were surprised to feel ready to eat pizza again the next day. And there was another pizzeria nearby that we wanted to try before driving back to Rome …

While Franco Pepe was named the best pizza maker in the world by the Best Chef in both 2021 and 2022, another pizza maker, Francesco Martucci was named the best pizza maker in Italy by Top 50 pizza, a title he has held since 2019 when he took it from Pepe who won it in 2018. Martucci has a pizzeria called I Masanielli in a shopping center in Caserta which is a 25-minute drive from Caiazzo. As the website reservations weren’t working, we decided to try our luck and just show up. Plan B was to finagle a pizza to go and eat on the street.

But first, we walked off Pepe’s tasting menu from the night before at the grand 18th-century Royal Palace of Caserta, a UNESCO World Heritage site built by Bourbon King Charles III to rival Versailles and the Royal Palace of Madrid. Two Star Wars movies were also filmed there. The magnificent park behind the palace sprawls out for almost 2 miles toward a striking waterfall. The park is so big that you can take a bus from one end to the other or rent a bike. We walked the full length to prep for our next pizza endeavor and also toured part of the palace before rushing off to try our luck at I Masanielli.

Martucci’s pizzeria is around the corner from the Royal Palace in an unassuming shopping center. The front seems out of place but the inside is spacious and modern. When we arrived we found another hungry and hopeful crowd waiting to get in, albeit less clubby at lunchtime. A small pony-tailed girl drifted back and forth on a pink plastic standing scooter and a group of teenagers in monochromatic hoodies leaned into their phones. The hostess was not roped off and was, fortunately, taking names. Waiting to get into a pizzeria is not uncommon in and around Naples. It’s mostly how they do it. We got lucky and were one of the last groups she agreed to sit and after about 40 minutes, we were inside.

Martucci is partly famous for an experimental and creative pizza that is not merely baked or fried, but baked, fried, and steamed. After polishing off two frittatine which are scrumptious balls of pasta that have been breaded and deep fried and which were as delicious as that sounds, we tried the Futuro di Marinara pizza that is steamed, fried, and then baked. It was topped with roasted tomato cream, olives from Caiazzo, anchovies from Trapani in Sicily, wild garlic pesto, capers from the Aeolian island of Salina, and oregano from the Lattari Mountains that run along the Sorrentine peninsula and the Amalfi Coast. The balance of the toppings was phenomenal, especially given the sheer number of olives involved, and the crust was light with a distinct and unusual crunch. It was delicious.

However, my boyfriend said it best when after trying twelve pizzas in less than twenty-four hours, he took his first bite of our thirteenth and final pizza, Martucci’s classic Margherita, and quietly gasped, “Oh my god, this is amazing.”

Some things are already perfect.

Francesco Martucci’s Margherita pizza at I Maisanielli in Caserta. Photo: Jill Hannon

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Jill Hannon

I'm a Vermonter living in Rome, Italy. I love to eat, drink, and travel. Eat more. See more.