July 21, 2024


The Food community

Gary Bimonte, the face of Pepe’s Pizza for a generation, dies

3 min read

Gary Bimonte, the face of Pepe’s pizza restaurants for his generation of the nearly century-old New Haven pizza dynasty, passed away April 7 of a heart attack.

It was Bimonte’s grandfather, Frank Pepe, who started the business on New Haven’s Wooster Street in 1925, on the site that is now known as “The Spot,” an annex to the expanded Pepe’s next door. By the 1950s, Pepes, which now regularly tops rankings of the country’s best pizza, was such an institution that when half of Wooster Street was bulldozed to build a highway, the other half was spared largely due to the importance of the pizza restaurants there.

The New Haven Pepes location announced that it would be closed all day Thursday to honor Bimonte’s passing. A eulogy on the Pepes website reads: “Gary was the pride and joy of the Pepe’s family, and there are no words to express the immense void that his passing has left in our hearts. He truly loved and cherished our family’s history, and he was so proud of the legacy that has carried through all these years.

New Haven mayor Justin Elicker issued this statement: “My condolences to the family of Gary Bimonte and the greater Pepe’s family. They are an iconic institution not just in New Haven, but to the country. Their cultural contributions have a lasting impact on our nation’s culinary history.”

Dean Falcone, a producer of the documentary “Pizza: A Love Story,” directed by Gorman Bechard and released in 2019, first knew Bimonte when both were children and Bimonte’s pizza restaurant in Hamden sponsored the Little League team Falcone played on. “He was such a warm person,” Falcone says. “A big sweet teddy bear. If you asked for something, he would just say ‘When?,’ and ‘How can I help?’

“He was one of many grandchildren, but he became pretty much the face of Pepe’s. Any grand opening, he was there. He was so proud of his family’s heritage, so proud of New Haven.”

New Haven historian Colin Caplan, author of the 2018 book “Pizza in New Haven,” proclaims that Bimonte was “one of the master pizza chefs of the world. He grew up at Pepe’s with his mom. He lost his mother a few years ago and he never got over it. He was making pizzas his entire life. He made millions of them, he might say.

The Pepes business incorporated over a dozen years ago, Caplan explains, partly as way to distribute “the family recipes and accumulated wealth” among the grandchildren. There are currently 12 locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York, including one in West Hartford that opened two years ago. “Gary became the outspoken spokesman of Pepe’s,” Caplan says. “He was the quality control guy for many years. He was the point person.

“Frank Pepe provided his family with a pizza dynasty. Pepe’s is known throughout the world. His family, and by proxy his grandchildren, are pizza royalty.” The historian says that virtually every restaurant that bills itself as offering “New Haven pizza” can be traced back to Pepe’s. Beyond that, “it kept Wooster Square strong. It was the glue for the Italian community in New Haven.”

“Now Gary can rest in peace. Pepes is still growing. His work and his legacy go on.”

Christopher Arnott can be reached at [email protected].

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