Forget Naples – why pizza-lovers should stay at its under-the-radar neighbour

The pizza at Pepe in Grani has turned Caiazzo into a dining destination (Chef’s Table)
The pizza at Pepe in Grani has turned Caiazzo into a dining destination (Chef’s Table)

While any pizza lover worth their sauce will have chewed over the pros and cons of Neapolitan pies, visitors contemplating the hallowed yet hectic port city should skip Naples and head directly to the medieval town of Caiazzo for a slice of the action.

Thirty miles northeast of Naples, Caiazzo’s name might ring a bell thanks to Franco Pepe, who’s been topping restaurant and chef rankings of late. A third-generation maestro pizzaiolo born and raised, Franco’s illustrious pizzeria Pepe in Grani, tucked away in Campania’s rolling hills, features in episode four of the recently released Netflix series Chef’s Table: Pizza.

The baker and pizza purveyor has picked up a slew of prizes for his Mediterranean pies, including Best Pizza Chef by The Best Chef Awards 2022, single-handedly turning the enchanting 2,000-year-old Caiazzo into a dining destination. Ingredients are all sourced locally and, like it or not, he has elevated Neapolitan style – which was awarded Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage Status in 2017 – to a new level.

The pizzas feature in Netflix show Chef’s Table (Pepe in Grani)
The pizzas feature in Netflix show Chef’s Table (Pepe in Grani)

First, he creates the ideal balance of fats, proteins and carbs so they align with the Mediterranean diet, while his hand-kneaded dough and creative toppings both celebrate and reinvent classic Italian recipes, and can be oven baked, fried, sweet and savoury.

Housed in a beautifully maintained 18th-century palazzo, Pepe in Grani offers diners the chance to savour Franco’s flavours in a variety of ways. Groups can reserve the three circular tasting room tables – for a bird’s eye view of pies in process, book the one with a see-through table top that overlooks the oven – while those after a more intimate experience should book Authentica, a private table for eight complete with wood-fired oven. On a summer evening, the breeze rolling over the terrace, the third of seven spaces, is particularly refreshing. While you can order a whole pizza – Napoli-style strictly adheres to a 11.5- to 12in diameter – it’s more fun to sample the 12-course tasting menu.

Ingredients are all sourced locally and, like it or not, he has elevated Neapolitan style to a new level

A welcome addition to the Pepe in Grani palazzo for food lovers who literally want to roll upstairs to pass out is the recently opened B&B. Both contemporary rooms are spacious, sporting views of the Campania countryside. While it’s a new hospitality venture for Franco, who was given an Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2019, it’s in keeping with the visionary approach he takes to pizza.

“I wanted to move the world of pizza away from the concept of fast food, which it’s often aligned to, so we created an overnight stay at the B&B to give pizza a slower connotation and allow people to experience the pizzeria according to the concepts of an ancient inn,” he says.

With a bellyful of Ciro (fried calzoncini stuffed with 12-month-aged Grana cheese fondue, rocket pesto and Caiazzane olive powder), Alletterata (topped with creamy Alife onions, Buffalo Mozzarella DOP, a little tunny and celery), and a slice of the totally moreish La Crisommola del Vesuvio dessert (fried pizza with Ricotta di Bufala Campana DOP with lemon peel, apricot jam from Vesuvius, toasted hazelnuts, dehydrated olives and fresh mint), checking in ensures your food baby only has to cope with crawling up three flights of stairs.

Chef Franco Pepe has elevated pizza-making to new levels (Netflix)
Chef Franco Pepe has elevated pizza-making to new levels (Netflix)

There’s nothing quite like a dough-fuelled doze, but make a resolution to work off the calories the following morning in adorable Caiazzo. A steep little town, residents are used to scaling its inclined alleys and narrow streets that join up to Piazza Porta Vetere like goats. Palm and pine trees proffer much-needed shade for nonnas catching up on overnight action over an espresso at the saffron-coloured facade of Bar Caffè Italia, a popular watering hole in the piazza; come afternoon it’s a magnet for schoolkids after gelato.

With no fewer than seven churches and cathedrals serving the 5,000-strong community, architectural gems include the 17th-century Palazzo Savastano and Castello Longobardo castle; head to Caiazzo’s historical old town to admire Juliet-style balconies and sidle up stone stairways that lead to grand doorways adorned by botanical arrangements.

Those looking to release more energy should trek along the Conciato Romano, a path named after the region’s famous sheep’s cheese that also happens to be the oldest in the world. A short distance from Caiazzo, scale the 565m-high Monte Santa Croce hill to spy the panorama of the Volturno river valley, olive groves and vineyards making up the rolling landscape, or drive to Matese Regional Park, home to two lakes and three mountains, including the 2,050m Mount Miletto that’s ideal for hiking and cycling.

The pretty old town of Caiazzo (Getty)
The pretty old town of Caiazzo (Getty)

Real foodies won’t be able to resist lunch at Le Campestre in Castel di Sasso, a small sheep farm and slow-food restaurant run by husband-and-wife team Manuel and Eulalia Lombardi. Their star product is the pungent Pecorino Conciato Romano cheese that’s aged for 24 months in terracotta amphorae; Franco uses their 12-month-aged version in his Pinsa pizza. From the airy terrace, enjoy an authentic Italian farm-to-table lunch prepared by Eulalia: “We only serve what we grow and cultivate,” she says. Pair fried pecorino and apricots with Manuel’s homemade limoncello liqueur (his own Falerno del Massico DOC is just as easy to drink), but be sure to reserve well ahead: there’s a month-long waiting list to dine here.

We only serve what we grow and cultivate

Eulalia Lombardi

Also close to Caiazzo is La Sbecciatrice, an organic farm in Villa Santa Croce, where farmer siblings Lino and Mimmo Barbiero will happily put visitors to work harvesting their pomodoro tomatoes for Pepe in Grani, or foraging on their land.

Still got room for one more cheesy triangle? Squeeze in a calzone at Antica Osteria Pizzeria Pepe on Piazza Porta Vetere, the family’s original establishment that Franco’s nono opened in 1938, still run by Franco’s siblings today. For other recommendations, check out Franco Pepe’s very own guide to Campania here.

Move over Naples – Caiazzo is coming for your pizza crown...

Travel essentials

Getting there

Trying to fly less?

Take the Eurostar to Paris and change for a train to Milan or Turin. Stay overnight and catch an onward train to Naples the next day, from where you can pick up a local train to Caiazzo.

Fine with flying?

Ryanair, easyJet and British Airways fly direct from the UK to Naples. From there, catch a local train to Caiazzo.

Staying there

Doubles at Pepe in Grani B&B from £82.