The Pizza War of Southern Westchester: Johnny’s vs. Pepe’s 5-9-10

The Pizza War of Southern Westchester: Johnny’s vs. Pepe’s

May 9, 2010

Richard J. Garfunkel


In November of 2009, Pepe’s Pizzeria, founded by Frank Pepe, on Wooster Street in New Haven, CT, and now run by his descendents moved into a location at 1555 Central Avenue, which was formerly the home of the now departed and legendary Ricky’s Clam House. I can remember eating at Ricky’s when Eisenhower was president. How did the subject of Pepe’s come up one could ask! Linda and I met her cousin Terry Rosen Deutsch at Beth Shalom Synagogue this past Friday night. In the course of their conversation, Linda mentioned that our children, Dana and Jon had come to New York for my birthday the other day and we went to Yankee Stadium and for dinner at the legendary Johnny’s Pizzeria. Along with us were Jon’s friends, Merry and Stephanie. All three of them, without coercion, or politeness to their host, (they had never eaten there before) felt that Johnny’s slices were not just very good, but great! Linda, Dana and I had previously enjoyed their critically acclaimed slices.


Meanwhile, with that in mind, Terry mentioned that they had eaten at Pepe’s Pizzeria in Yonkers. We, of course, had heard of this well-known eatery, which was located in New Haven, CT, but we were surprised that they now had a local venue. Johnny’s, which has a Zagat’s rating of 27 for food, has been a legendary Mount Vernon eatery for seven decades, but people have always asked us if we ever enjoyed the cuisine at Pepe’s.


Therefore, on our way to Stew Leonard’s in Yonkers this afternoon, we decided to make a lunch detour to Pepe’s on Central Avenue. Unlike Johnny’s, there’s plenty of parking available at Pepe’s, but the lot and the spaces on Central Avenue looked like they were filled. But, fortuitously we found a space right next to the front door. It was crowded, but our waitress, a lovely, lithe, lass named Lisa, got to us quite quickly. We learned that she was a relative of the Migliucci family that runs the legendary Mario’s on Arthur Avenue. We ordered a small salad for $3.95 and a small plain tomato pie with mozzarella, which was priced at $7.70. The salad came very quickly, but we waited more than 20 minutes for the pie. The pizza finally was served and it was a nice size for a small pizza. It was quite hot with a decently thin crust. At 3:30 PM, I could have eaten anything. But it was a bit too gooey and oily and it did not have a distinct enough taste. We felt it was not spicy enough. But, all in all, it was very good, but unlike Johnny’s pies, it needed a lot of garlic powder, and hot pepper. We even took home two slices. No one leaves any slices left over at Johnny’s. The crust at Johnny’s is incredible, thin, but firm, and many gourmands believe that toppings only subtract from the greatness of Johnny’s plain pizza. So far, with only one eating experience at Pepe’s, we still both lean heavily to Johnny’s.


With Pepe’s bold move into Yonkers, the Great Pizza War has been engaged. These two super powers of the culinary art of thin crust pizza are less than two miles apart, but their venues are diametrically different. Johnny’s could almost be classified as a shrine to the NY Yankees, with pictures and pennants of the Bombers festooned over ever inch of its wood-paneled wall space. Even though it is in its third location, it has that “lived-in” charm of a family restaurant. Pepe’s is in a rectangle building, painted bright white, with huge paintings of Frank Pepe and old photos of their original location in New Haven. In the center of the restaurant is a wide open cooking area where their chefs do their culinary craft.


Historically, Johnny's, established in 1942 is one of Westchester's oldest pizzerias. Their ultra-thin crust pizza is served by the pie only; no slices! Though the pizza is the real star, one can order many entrees and appetizers off their extensive menu. You can ask anyone where there is good pizza and they will say Johnny’s.


Meanwhile, Johnny’s a Mount Vernon culinary landmark with its famous, delicious and expensive pizza (a six-slice mushroom, sausage and cheese is about $16) is now located a block up West Lincoln Avenue on one’s way to Yannantuano’s Funeral Home. Reasonably not every one who goes up West Lincoln is heading there, and for sure not every one going there is in position to enjoy the famous thin crust of Johnny’s pies.

Except for the last sixteen years, Johnny’s was always not there. For decades it was on Gramatan Avenue and before that it was a small hole in the wall on the corner of Third Street and Fourth Avenue. Back in the early 1960’s, when I experienced my first 15 cent slice, it was not far from Hi-FI Pizza, another vest pocket pizzeria off Mount Vernon’s 4th Avenue shopping district.30 W Lincoln Ave
Mount Vernon, NY

Established in 1942, Johnny's is one of Westchester's oldest pizzerias. Their old-school approach maintains as the ultra-thin crust pizza is served by the pie only; no slices! Though the pizza is the real star, traditional Italian menu items (eggplant parmesan, baked ziti) are also available.You can ask anyone where there is good pizza and they will say Johnny's. People still to this day walk in and say “Is this the FAMOUS Johnnys pizza that was… (read more)


Pepe's was founded in 1925 by Frank Pepe (1893 –1969), an Italian immigrant. Pepewas born in Maiori, Italy, and immigrated to New Haven in 1909 at the age of 17. The quintessential Wooster Square Italian immigrant (poor, uneducated, enthusiastic), he took a job at a New Haven factory, but he hated it.

During World War I, Pepe went back to Italy to fight for his native country. Upon returning, he soon landed a job working at a bakery on Wooster Street. Pepe began walking through the Wooster Square market and sold his “tomato pies” off of a special headdress. After saving up enough money, he was able to buy a wagon to sell his pizzas from. He did so well with his pizzas that he was eventually able to take over his employer's business and turn it into the first Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana on June 16, 1925. Frank Pepe died on September 6, 1969.

Pepe's originated the New Haven-style thin-crust apizza (closely related to Neapolitan-style Italian pizza) which he baked in a coal-fired brick oven. Originally, Frank Pepe only made two varieties of pizza: the “plain” (oregano, chopped garlic, tomato sauce, and grated pecorino romano cheese) and the “marinara” (tomato sauce, grated cheese, and anchovies).

The piece of land which Pepe's restaurant sat on was owned by the Boccamiello family. They later made Frank Pepe leave so that they could start their own pizzeria at the establishment, which they renamed The Spot. Pepe moved his restaurant to its current location next door to The Spot in 1936. The Pepe family later bought back The Spot from the Boccamiello family in 1981 and it now serves the same menu as the newer restaurant.

2 thoughts on “The Pizza War of Southern Westchester: Johnny’s vs. Pepe’s 5-9-10

  1. Mr. Garfunkel,

    Your review was both informative and nostalgic. While Goggling info on Hi Fi Pizzeria, Mt. Vernon, NY, I came upon your article, “The Pizza War of Southern Westchester: Johnny’s vs. Pepe’s 5-9-10”.

    While growing up in the ’60s in Mt. Vernon, NY, I practically lived on Johnny’s and Hi Fi pizza. I attended Washington Jr. High School, just one block from Hi Fi Pizza’s old 2nd Street & 4th Avenue location, and down the street from Johnny’s Pizza’s old location on 3rd Street & 4th Avenue.

    It just so happens that I’ve been in deep discussion with an old friend from those junior high school days named Bobby Ferrara (who now resides in Armonk, NY) regarding the goodness of Hi Fi and Johnny’s pizza. As life goes on, I left Mt. Vernon to attend college in Boston, then moved to California. The pizza is not bad there, but there must be something about the water that doesn’t give the dough the same crispiness of a New York made pie, having absolutely nothing on that wonderfully spicy, crunchy crusted, full-bodied cheesiness of New York style pizza that I now find myself missing massively. So, to appease my robust desire for that tomato delight for which I’ve craved for years, Bobby emailed me a photo of a large Hi Fi pizza pie that is now an ornament on my refrigerator. Many thanks to him and many thanks to you for the trip down memory lane.

    I have not had the pleasure of a Pepe’s pizza slice, but I will definitely search it out upon my next visit to Southern Westchester County, NY.

    Thank you,

    Kevin Brownlee

  2. I remember you at MVHS. I can’t be sure whether it was in the late 60s when I was teaching there, or later on when I was helping Dave Rider, among others! I came back to MV on September 28th, for my 50th HS reunion. During the weekend festivities we stopped by Johnny’s for a pie! As usual, it was great!

    Richard J. Garfunkel

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