by Evan Hatch
I always wanted to be a part of Pepper’s Pizza in Chapel Hill. Pepper’s hid in plain sight on Franklin Street, two doors down from the Varsity Theater, a narrow squeeze of a restaurant with checkerboard floors, whacked art hanging and a cast of incredible characters working the kitchen. It was Chapel Hill’s coolest anti fraternity. The kitchen was an open space (the first one I’d ever seen) blaring music – everything from Archers of Loaf, Stooges, Wu-Tang Clan, Sinatra. The music set the mood for the entire place, and in my impressionable mind, I could judge the kitchen staff’s mood by its decibels. It was a punk place, but was warm and fuzzy enough. Beautiful alterna-servers took care of patrons in the large booths – taking the edge off the green-haired kitchen staff. It was a loved spot – and most patrons took ownership of the joint, the perfect place to bring family and guests from out of town. But the food was king – fresh and inexpensive. In college, there were pizza cravings. And there were Pepper’s cravings.
The food was healthy – beautiful green salads with fresh ingredients, thin and crispy crusted pizza, fresh gazpacho, strombolis and calzones. This was pretty much the extent of the menu – apologies to anything forgotten. The Pepper’s salad could change the opinion of the greens hater. Crisp green romaine, shredded mozzarella, diced red onion, fresh mushroom and seedless tomatoes made a must for the meal. Homemade dressings exceptional. Those in the know had the”Djoppy” half honey Dijon, half poppy seed. My good friend Srinath Vadlamani let us in on this concoction, the smile from the waitresses when you ordered the dressing made the rogue going that much cooler.
And what to say about the pizza? It was like no pizza ever experienced by this small town fellow. I am often a crust leaver, but this never happened at Pepper’s. It was a remarkably simple (and vegan) crust that came out crispy and not at all greasy. And that kitchen put some serious thought into their pies – the Quattro Stagiano pie celebrated the four seasons beautifully, and The Hot Dog – amazingly turned a veggie specialty pie into a baseball stadium staple. I do not know how it happened. It just did.
Pepper’s shuttered in 2011. After a quarter century and two locations, it closed its doors. I still miss it- not weekly anymore, but every once in a while a fevered sensory dream. Pepper’s was a local favorite. And everyone had their own favorites and personal stories. I heard a lot of good tunes there, had a date or two there, discussed a lot of culture there, and I wish right now, there was there.
Evan is a folklorist currently working with the North Carolina Folklife Institute in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson & Scotland counties. Since 2002, he worked in Middle Tennessee documenting traditional musical and material culture. He was producer at Spring Fed Records and served as President of the Tennessee Folklore Society.