Sunday, February 5, 2012

Review: Papa's Tomato Pies, Trenton NJ

Did you ever have a major brain cramp? When something so obvious escaped your mental grasp? I've learned that I've had one that lasted 25 years. 

I discovered DeLorenzo's Tomato Pies (Hudson Street in Trenton, closed January 2012) in 1983 and it was the best pie I've ever had. It was my go-to pizza when I lived in nearby Ewing NJ and then Yardley PA. It was hard to obtain, so my backup pie was Joe's Tomato Pies. It was a great thin-crust pie, much-beloved by regulars including my sister and brother-in-law. They also had some super cream soda, but they have been closed for over a decade. 

I was dimly aware of Papa's Tomato Pies but somehow never felt compelled to try it. Last month, we made it back to Hudson Street for our last pies there. This weekend, we needed to make the trek from West Chester PA to Plainsboro NJ. Why not use the occasion to swing by the "new" DeLorenzo's on Rt. 33 in Robbinsville?

We tried that, arriving shortly after 5pm and figuring to be ahead of the rush. Wrong! There was a 45-minute wait, and chaos. We decided that we were not up to it and began thinking about Plan B. I figured it was time to have the "other" DeLorenzo pizza (Hamilton Ave in Trenton, different pie, different owners). However, I recalled that Scott, the NY "Scott's Pizza Tour" guy, visited and love Papa's when he made his pilgrimage to DeLorenzo's. You really should check out his beautiful article and pics here: SCOTT TOURS TRENTON. So we set our GPS for Chambers Street to have some Papa's Tomato Pies.

Click any picture to enlarge
Frankly, I should have known that any place billing itself as "tomato pie" is going to have a distinctive product. We arrived and found the place about half full. We were greeted warmly and took one of the cozy booths. As Scott notes, this place looks exactly like you'd expect for an old-timey pizza joint.
We had a party of three. EPBAC (eats pizza but avoids cheese) joined me as usual, and we had AHBI (apartment-hunting broke intern) with us. AHBI spent the first two-thirds of his life in China; he is a very bright young guy but surely a newbie in the world of pizza.

Pepperoni tomato pie
We quickly settled on a pitcher of red cream soda with one large pepperoni pie (EPBAC's choice) and one large sausage pie (my baseline pie). They arrived quickly. I began with a slice of the sausage pie. Hot out of the oven, it was just a tiny bit wet in the center, and forgivably so. It was crowned with beautiful odd shaped chunks of real Italian sausage, just as DeLorenzo's had.

The sausage pie
On the Very First Bite, I knew that this pie was something special. Its crust did not look distinctive, and it had only a mild char underneath. But it was about perfectly thin, crisp, and sturdy. The cheese was good if a tad unremarkable, and the sauce had a nice savory zing. I really can't say precisely what sensory memory was triggered, but I was instantly transported to Riverside NJ and Rosa's Tomato Pie circa 1972. This pie had much in common with the pie of my youth and with the legendary pizza at Patsy's in East Harlem.

The pepperoni pie was also wonderful, but not on the same plane as the sausage pie. It was cooked a little less and the pepperoni was not a standout topping. But both pies filled me with happiness that you can still get a world-class pie in Chambersburg and with regret that I hadn't been eating this great pizza for the past 25 years.

Not much visual char, but awesome crust
Both pies had outstanding crusts. No real pizza epicure will toss aside the bones (a.k.a. cornicione), but these were perhaps the best ever. As much as DeLorenzo's wafer-thin crust may be my all-time favorite, even the DeLo crust is dry and cracker-like on the edge. The out edge of these pies was still thin, but with a crispness over a densely chewy interior. If you care about crust, you will swoon.

The interior at Papa's
I was heartened to see the place fill up as we dined. This neighborhood is changing, and one wonders if enough lovers of real pizza will remain or travel into Trenton for this artisan pie. AHBI commented that the other patrons "looked old" and I presume them to the be last holdouts of a fading generation. I hope that Papa's can hang on, even as the neighborhood evolves.

A beautiful slice of the sausage pie
Our bill came to just under $40 for two large pies and the soda, with tax. We had 5 slices to take home. This superlative tomato pie is right on the same plane as DeLorenzo's; I'm glad that Robbinsville was crowded enough that we chose to journey to Chambersburg.

In my view, DeLorenzo's and Brooklyn's DiFara are the perfect "10" of pizza. Joe's Tomato Pie, in my memory, was about an 8. Papa's, so long and so wrongly neglected by me, comes in around 9.9. The crust is a 10, the cheese is an 8, the sauce is a 9.5, the ambiance is a 10, and the skill of the pizzaolo is a 10.

If you care about real food in a friendly casual setting, this marvelous throwback deserves your frequent visit.

Papa's Tomato Pies on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for stopping in, and for the positive review! Hope to see you back again soon!