Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Defining the Tomato Pie


I grew up in a small town in South Jersey.  My dad, a World War II veteran, had been introduced to pizza in Trenton – probably in the 1940s – and he called it “tomato pie.”  So beginning in my youth and continuing until quite recently, I regarded “pizza” and “tomato pie” as synonyms.  Crust, sauce, cheese.  Toppings, optional.
Tomato pie, DeLorenzo's of Trenton. Click any pic to enlarge!

But during the 1980s on a visit to Denver, I made a phone call to order bar pizza from the superb Bonnie Brae Tavern. I asked for a “large pie.”  After a long silence, the puzzled order-taker replied “we don’t have pies here, just pizza.”  I tried to clarify, not by saying “tomato pie” but “pizza pie” and that only helped a little. I learned that “pie” is not universal for pizza.
Pizza in Tuscany - has some overlap with Trenton tomato pie!

Some opening facts that we’ll explore:
  • Pizza and tomato pie are not always synonyms
  • Tomato pie has a very specific meaning in Trenton, with some possible overlap in New Haven
  • Tomato pie has a very specific meaning in Philly’s western burbs, and it is different than the Trenton version
  • Tomato pie has one more meaning, in the South and Midwest, and it’s not even pizza-like

The Southern Tomato Pie

If you Google "tomato pie" you will find Paula Deen's recipe for one. But the only thing it shares in common with Conshy and Trenton is that it contains dough, cheese, and tomatoes.  
Southern "tomato pie"

It is tomatoes, basil, mayonnaise, and cheese, baked in a pastry pie shell. I've never had it. Sound pretty good, but it surely is not pizza.

The Conshy Tomato Pie

I lived in or near Jersey for many years, and when I moved to West Chester, PA (45 minutes west of Philly) a few years ago, I discovered another type of tomato pie. A thoughtful co-worker stopped at the Conshy Bakery (short for Conshohocken Italian Bakery) and brought in their signature tomato pie. The Conshy tomato pie is rectangular, pan baked, with sauce, but with just a sprinkle of cheese post-bake.
Conshy-style tomato pie

The easiest way to describe it would be a Sicilian pizza without the cheese. I love it, but I usually feel that I want to add cheese. It took a trip to Italy, eating some related-but-not-identical rectangle slices of Roman pizza, for me to gain an appreciation for cheeseless pie. Bottom line, if the crust and sauce are SO good, the cheese can be a distraction.
An appealing square from Tony Roni's

The “Famous Conshy Bakery Tomato Pie” is “An 18"x 25" sheet of dough with a homemade tomato sauce spread generously on top and baked. Cheese, garlic powder, and oil are added after baking." It's typically eaten at room temperature, but I like to heat it up to get a crisp bottom.
Make sure to click and enlarge this brilliant slice from L&B Spumoni Gardens

Other Conshy-style tomato pies include the Philly region mini-chain Tony Roni's (reviewed HERE), Corropolese in Norristown (reviewed HERE), Santucci's, Aversa Bakery, and Cacia's Bakery (reviewed HERE), the square slice at L&B Spumoni Gardens (reviewed HERE) even though they don't call it a tomato pie, and even the square slices from New York's Brick Oven Pizza 33 (reviewed HERE). 
Squares from Manhattan's Brick Oven Pizza 33

The prettiest tomato pie ever, in Rome
These are all good or great, but their Roman cousin is tops for a rectangular pizza product without the cheese (review of Forno Marco Roscioli HERE).

The Trenton Tomato Pie

The Trenton version of tomato pie has cheese, and most folks would view the round pie as a pizza. But it does have important characteristics that make it different from Neapolitan pies, the New York slice, and other legendary pizzas like Totonno's of Coney Island. I've watched it made at DeLorenzo's (Hudson St., Trenton) and the assembly is reversed from pizza -- the cheese (conventional shredded aged mozzarella) goes on before the "sauce" which is mostly crushed tomato.
More great pie from DeLorenzo's

The "upside-down" pizza. It's not tomato pie
Other pizzamakers in the Philly area make "upside down" pizza where the sauce is on top, but those have a blanket of conventional sauce that completely obscures the cheese and prevents browning. We tried one at Marzano's in Exton, PA, reviewed HERE; not bad, but not tomato pie. And despite earning kudos from Philadelphia Magazine for its great sauce, Marzano's is now closed.

The best-made tomato pies deliver up a mouthful of tomato in one bite, and some properly browned cheese in another.
Lining up for tomato pie before DeLorenzo's closed the doors for good

DeLorenzo's Hudson Street (closed in January 2012, but lives on in suburban Robbinsville; reviewed HERE) is my favorite "pizza" of all time. Tomato Pie purists would cringe at the pizza term for a DeLorenzo's tomato pie. There is a Facebook group devoted to Trenton tomato pie, and the members feel pretty strongly that tomato pie and pizza are very different.
Pepperoni tomato pie from Papa's in Trenton

Very close in quality to DeLorenzo's is the superb, last-tomato-pie-still-in-Trenton Papa's Tomato Pies (reviewed HERE). Papa's should be just as much a nationally revered institution as Lombardi's, Grimaldi's, and DiFara. The "other DeLorenzo's" (the owners are related, but not affiliated and their product is pizza, not tomato pie) is leaving Trenton for suburban Hamilton.

What makes Trenton tomato pie so special? A Trenton pie features a thin and sturdy crust. Crackly outside, but not cracker-like. There is some chew and hole structure. It is never wet! You would never discard the cornicione (pizza bones) on a tomato pie. A Trenton pie is defined by the base, not the toppings. There is no "buffalo chicken tomato pie."

On a Trenton pie, the cheese is a role player (unlike the soupy puddles of buffalo mozz that float on too many Neapolitan efforts). Crust first, tomato chunks (not sauce), then cheese, in that order of importance. It is the perfect canvas on which to drop some chunks of genuine Italian sausage or slices of pepperoni. Other toppings can work -- garlic, onion, mushrooms, anchovies -- but it surely would be a crime against nature to order a tomato pie "with the works."
Close-up of the art of the crust, at Frank Pepe's in New Haven

A related delight is the New Haven tomato pie, also called "apizza." I've visited Frank Pepe's (reviewed HERE) which calls itself Neapolitan, but it clearly is not. Neapolitan pie has a wonderful crust, but a soft puffy crust. Frank's is delightfully crispy, yet with stellar hole structure and internal al dente chewiness. You could sell it in Trenton, call it tomato pie, and get no argument. For me, tomato pie is always better than Neapolitan.
"Apizza" from Modern Apizza, New Haven

Apizza in Florida at Nick's
I also loved New Haven's Sally's Apizza (reviewed HERE), the second-most famous pie in New Haven, and it is magnificent, Modern Apizza (reviewed HERE) has a crust that is softer than Pepe's and I would not call it tomato pie. It was terrific, but it was eclipsed by Pepe's, Sally's, and Nick's New Haven Style Pizzeria in Boca Raton, FL (reviewed HERE).

Conclusions

More so than any other American pizza I've tried, a Trenton tomato pie is balanced, nuanced. Pizzaioli ruin otherwise fine pizzas by the notion that more is better.  "Cheese is good; more cheese!  I love their sauce, more please!"  But that tactic backfires with pizza. When the cheese or sauce is applied in excess, the crust suffers, the yin strains its yang, the feng cannot shui, the tip droops, and mother nature cries. You don't need to fold your tomato pie slice to keep the toppings on as you eat it. In fact, if you can fold it, something is wrong.
THIS never happens with a tomato pie. Yuck.

The Trenton tomato pie is, for me, the pinnacle in the pizza family. Each bite delivers a hearty crunch, then a satisfying chew, bright, tangy, concentrated tomato flavor, with the adhesion of nicely browned cheese. No cheese is sliding off in gloopy clumps, you can hold a slice in one hand, and all the flavors and textures are in harmony.

I'm glad for the current wild popularity of Neapolitan pizza, because it celebrates great ingredients and technique. But if the best pie you've had is Neapolitan, you need to make a trip to Trenton or Robbinsville. You can have destination pizza without the wet center.

4 comments:

  1. You must make the trip to Salerno's Apizza in Stratford, Connecticut. Every year around this time they offer an off the hook fresh plum tomato pizza that is sui generis, in my opinion. It may not qualify as a true tomato pie in the strictest sense of the term because it includes mozzarella and grated cheeses as well as pesto but it is divine nonetheless. And those fresh plum tomatoes!

    Unfortunately, this week might be the last week these gems are available until next year but sometimes the fresh tomato supply lasts until the first week of September. I'll be picking up my sixth and seventh pie of the season tonight.

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  2. Jimmy,
    Thanks for sharing that! I went to their FB site and can tell from the pics that this is a great pie. I'm surprised that they haven't yet gotten attention from the pizza cognescenti at Slice - SeriousEats. CT is a long way from home but I'd love to get there for that pie. Here in PA and in NJ, we get fresh local tomatoes all thru Sep and even into Oct. Maybe they won't run out so soon?

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  3. I love the love for Trenton pies! But....

    "The Trenton version of tomato pie...does have important characteristics that make it different from...other legendary pizzas like Totonno's of Coney Island...the assembly is reversed...the cheese...goes on before the "sauce" which is mostly crushed tomato."

    Actually, Totonno's is the same in this regard. Check out this blog for pics:

    http://thefoodienista.blogspot.com/2012/06/totonnos-pizzeria-napolitana-new-york.html

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  4. Emilia, Thanks for that - learned something today! I had a Totonno's pie and didn't realize it. The key is to let the cheese peek through - if the sauce buries the cheese, the texture will never be right. PQ

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