Pepi's Pizza: A Central New York Landmark
"We just sit around talking about the old times."
When I was in junior-high and high-school in the 1980s in Oneida, New York, a half-mile stretch of Route 5 on Genesee Street was dubbed “The Strip,” and it’s where I spent countless weekend nights hanging out and, once I got my driver’s license, “cruising” the main drag with my friends. (I lucked out to have two other good friends named Brad and we may have been known as, or called ourselves, “The Brad Pack”).
The Strip was bookended by the McDonald’s on the east, whose vast parking lot made it a prime spot to reconnoiter, and Friendly’s on the west, where sitting in a booth ordering a bacon-and-grilled-cheese sandwich, french fries with a side of gravy, and a coffee-flavored Fribble made me feel like I was in the movie Diner. Between those borders was a Burger King (which had been a Carroll’s until 1975), Pizza Hut, and a Wendy’s (the Pizza Hut and Wendy’s both had of-the-era front sunrooms and glorious salad bars).
But right in the middle was Pepi’s, a family-owned pizzeria that first opened in 1960. The Pizza Hut and Friendly’s are long gone (RIP) and now there’s an Arby’s, Taco Bell, Popeyes, and Dunkin’ Donuts in the lineup. But Pepi’s still stands, and remains a personal landmark of my formative years and will always hold a sentimental place in my heart, as it does for generations of Central New Yorkers.
I believe it was food writers and pizza authorities Adam Kuban or Ed Levine who popularized the theory that all pizzas you ever try in your lifetime are measured against that first informative pizza of your youth. I’ve had amazing pizza here in New York (Lucali, Emmett’s, F&F, Ops, Leo, Scarr’s, Paulie Gee, L'Industrie Pizzeria) and in Italy but if I could only order one last pizza it would probably be a large, square-cut pie from Pepi’s with ham and anchovies (plus an antipasto salad (no onions) and ten extra-crispy hot wings with extra blue cheese).
Like me, I think most of my high-school friends can still recite Pepi’s phone number (315-363-7580) from memory. Pepi’s was the destination for post-soccer match hangouts, family gatherings, birthday parties, the place to linger after high-school dances, first dates, last dates, and endless hours pumping tokens into Space Invaders, Dig Dug, Ms. Pac-Man, and Frogger in their adjoining arcade. Plus they had a popular free-standing payphone (remember those?) in the parking lot where kids would call their parents for a ride to make it back home before curfew.
As is the case with restaurants with history there will always be people who hang on to the memories of their past experiences (guilty) and whenever I’m back home I’ll hear people say Pepi’s isn’t what it used to be. Prices are too high, the quality of the pizza isn’t the same, service has gone downhill. And yes, I’ve had some sub-par pies at Pepi’s in recent years—underbaked, too much cheese versus sauce, thrifty with the toppings—but as I have fewer chances these days to have a Pepi’s pie I tend to be more forgiving than locals who order with more frequency. And my nostalgia for those pizzas of my youth and the memories of so many Pepi’s runs to pick up a couple of pizzas with my father when I was back home from college or visiting over the holidays from Seattle or New York is a powerful force.
I don’t make it back home as much as I used to and when I pull up to my sister’s home and see a few discarded Pepi’s boxes in the recycling pile in the garage I would protest, “You knew I was coming home. You couldn’t hold out one more day?” But even if it was Christmas and trays of Chicken Riggies, Utica greens, baked ham, and ziti were on deck for the next few days I would still sneak out for a Pepi’s pizza. And when it lands just right—a bit well-done with some char, the proper balance of tangy sauce and cheese, and the proper distribution of salty toppings—it is a thing of beauty.
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