Sunday, April 21, 2013

Review: Tacconelli's Pizzeria, Philadelphia

Destination pizza. This blog's purpose is finding destination pizza - a pie that is worth not only the calories consumed, but the time and effort to get it.

Legendary pizza. Some destination pizza joints are elevated to legendary status, having been around a long time (usually) and serving outstanding pizza. Lombardi's in New York, Frank Pepe's in New Haven (review HERE), DeLorenzo's Tomato Pies (review HERE) in Trenton/Robbinsville. The much newer Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix may be on its way to legendary status.

Frank Pepe's, New Haven. Click any pic to enlarge!

When pizza geeks talk about pizza in Philadelphia, once a second-tier city for pie, Tacconelli's is often mentioned in the most reverent tones, and it is frequently compared to Trenton's DeLorenzo's for it's thin crust and emphasis on the tomato over the cheese. It's tomato pie, not quite synonymous with "pizza." I've wanted to try Tacconelli's for a long time, but never got there for a variety of reasons.

It's not in center city near major attractions, nor in South Philly near the stadiums. If you go to Tacconelli's in the Port Richmond working-class community, you are probably making a trip solely for the pizza. 

Some years back, I was a frequent visitor to nearby Bridesburg and on one Saturday I phoned Tacconelli's to order a pie for takeout. I was greeted with "Did you order your dough yesterday?"


"You need to order your dough the day before, we only make a set amount of pies each day."

This proved to be a sufficient hurdle that I never got my Tacconelli's pizza (other than a trip to a South Jersey Tacconelli's operated by a brother, where I found very good pizza and no need to pre-order the dough). Most pizza reviewers say that the Jersey pie is fine, but the original in Port Richmond is the holy grail. 

A peek into the kitchen

Tacconelli's has a 20' by 20' brick oven fueled by an oil burner, but it's a one-man, one oven operation. That aspect drives the need to reserve the dough (although that rule has been relaxed a little). I had expected Tacconelli's to be a small place inside, like DiFara, or medium-small like the former Trenton home of DeLorenzo's, but it was quite large inside, lots of tables and lots of patrons. Hard to imagine that one pizzaiolo can make all that pie.

The rationale for the pre-ordering is that the pizza maker is also the dough man, and he mixes the dough every morning. For more details and the consummate guide to the pizza scene in Philly, you should read Drew Lazor's 2010 article "Waiting for Good Dough" HERE

My lunch at La Porta

My visit to Tacconelli's for dinner was preceded by pizza lunch at Media's La Porta (review HERE), the best pizza in Philly's western suburbs. There, I had enjoyed a brilliant hybrid (Trenton/Naples) pie with sausage, bacon, caramelized onions, and broccoli rabe. Great day for baseball; let's play two!

Pizza, beer, and wine = happiness

My long-overdue journey to Tacconelli's occurred fortuitously; my wife's colleagues in Philly arranged a group outing on a Friday evening, and she wrangled an invite for me. Each person chipped in 20 bucks, folks brought bottles of wine and some European beers, and we gathered at 6pm in a large table near the back. 

Pizza and adult beverages in place

Much like many businesses in Philly neighborhoods, Tacconelli's looks like a converted row home. That is why I was shocked to see how big it is inside. There was a major 7-month renovation in 1992, and perhaps they expanded the footprint then.

On the Tacconelli website, I learned that: 

"In 1918 Giovanni Tacconelli came to Philadelphia from Italy. After a few years working as a laborer, he decided to do what he had done in his native Italy: "Bake bread." So along with a few of his friends, he built his 20' by 20' brick oven. In 1946, he decided to make tomato pies, consisting of fresh made dough, little cheese, and a lot of sauce cooked in our brick oven to give it a crisp light taste."
We arrived with great anticipation. Somerset Street is a busy narrow boulevard in this part of Philly, but we found street parking without a lot of difficulty. Samantha, my wife's colleague, had made the group arrangements, reserving eight doughs for about ten of us. Given the thin-crust light-cheese approach, and knowing how much DeLorenzo's pizza I can eat in one sitting, that did not seem like too many pies.
Samantha digs in

I was surprised to see some empty tables on a Friday night. I suppose the "reserve your dough" policy discourages walk-ins. For sure, you can't pop in and sit down on a Friday night in DiFara, DeLorenzo's, or Pepe's. The place was pretty well packed by the time we left, though.
The margherita

We ordered four pies to start, targeting a mix of styles. The menu offers a cheeseless tomato pie, a "regular pie" with scant cheese and lots of sauce, a white pie with garlic, and a margherita by which the dry mozzarella on the regular pie is replaced by fresh mozzarella. We chose one white pie, one margherita, one regular with pepperoni, and one regular with sausage and mushrooms (the staff discouraged us from getting more than two toppings on any pie).
Regular with sausage and mushroom

Every pie -- these four and the four we ordered later -- had a beautifully thin and delicate crust that somehow stayed rigid under the weight of the generously applied sauce; at worst, only the first bite was wet or droopy. Beyond its near-perfect texture, the crust had that robust flavor of well-baked Italian bread. 
The white pie

The regular pie and the margherita pie were very close in character; each had a deep application of the sauce, and though the cheese was visible, it was more of a role player, a flavoring agent. It was swimming in the sauce (not buried, thankfully) and hence did not acquire any browning or bubbling except on the white pie.
Side view of the thin crust
Underside; crisp with mild char

DeLorenzo's uses mostly crushed tomatoes on its pies, so does Philly's excellent SLiCE (reviewed HERE), and I often do the same for those I make at home. This tomato pie, however, uses sauce. I found it to be pretty sweet, carrying gentle notes of Italian herbs. I enjoy a sweet sauce, and this one was bright in color and flavor, and absolutely the dominant flavor.
Regular pie with pepperoni

The pepperoni pie was the best of our first four, because the cured meat added a nice dimension and its saltiness played well against the sweet sauce.

Despite the abundance of sauce and other wet toppings, the crust did not become soggy. Perhaps the first bite of a few slices suggested the use of knife and fork. 
Easy to get "no tip sag" on the sauceless white pie
Twyla says, "no tip sag, even veggie loaded"
Bijal demonstrates that tip sag is minimal

The sausage was excellent, but once again I was reminded of the error in putting vegetables on pizza. This pie also was topped with mushrooms. I have no gripe with canned mushrooms on pizzas, but on a pie already drenched with sauce, these added little beyond wet weight and bulk. I suppose folks like to order veggies on pizza thinking they are offsetting its inherent payload of fat and calories. But most vegetable toppings diminish the pie. 
Jerome is digging the spinach-onion pie

The white pie was excellent, but I'm not sure it was pizza or even tomato pie. The garlic is not that awful prepared stuff that comes in a jar with a taste of preservatives, nor (sadly) is it fresh garlic, which could transform this pie to ethereal levels. Instead, it's old-school granulated garlic powder, cooked into the cheese and delivering a nice brown top. This is a cousin to the pizza bianca sold in Rome, which is often just crust, olive oil, salt, and perhaps a sprig of rosemary. The bread is the star.
Roman-style pizza bianca

The second four pies brought all good stuff, but the onions on the spinach and  onion pie were undercooked. Multi-colored peppers showed up on a white pie, and their strong flavors killed the delicate balance and simple beauty of the pie. The spinach was fresh spinach, probably flash sauteed, and it was superb; one of the very few successful veggie toppings this night.
Spinach-prosciutto pie

One well-chosen combo was a regular pie with prosciutto and spinach. Just wonderful flavors that worked well together, even though the moisture of the spinach prevented the prosciutto from getting any browned and crisped edges.
Vibrantly red sauce on these pies

I now regret that we didn't get one cheeseless tomato pie, so that I could better evaluate the two headline ingredients -- crust and sauce -- alone. It may have had much in common with the pizza we had at La Montecarlo in Rome (review HERE) and Bar Foscarini in Venice (review HERE) - simple rounds of excellent thin crisp dough, with a thin spread of tomato sauce and perhaps some garlic.
La Montecarlo, Rome
Underside of the La Montecarlo. Simple and brilliant
Pizza from Bar Foscarini, Venice

So where does Tacconelli's stand in relation to the legends? This crust was superb, I have to use the term "classic." I very much enjoyed the sweet sauce, but not as much as the tomatoes at DeLorenzo's and DiFara, and I found it was applied much more thickly than I would prefer. The meat toppings were excellent; the veggie toppings were simply our own bad choices, except the spinach.
Tacconelli's interior, from entry point of view
Interior, from rear of Tacconelli's facing the front entry

At Tacconelli's, you can get pizza with no cheese, pizza with almost no cheese, or pizza with cheese only. All terrific choices, but next time I'll ask for (and would love to see on the menu) a pizza with about half the sauce and double the cheese of the "regular." That would still be a highly-sauced and lightly-cheesed pie. I do wonder, though, do I really need them to repeat the DeLorenzo's and Papa's Tomato Pies experience?

Foreground: Freweini (L) and Ying (R)

L to R: Samantha, Stacie, Carol (praying for more cheese)

This is wonderful tomato pie, clearly destination pie, and worthy of legendary status. It doesn't ring my bell quite like Trenton or New Haven pizza, but I want it in my mix. It's a style of pie that I really haven't had anywhere, even as it has elements of Trenton and Rome. I loved the atmosphere (although I probably would have loved it more before the remodeling). Service was good, and the BYO just adds another dimension.
Twyla is clearly pleased

I'm not sure yet where Tacconelli's will enter into my pizza rankings, but it seems like Top Ten material. There is now a lot of competition in Philly - Osteria, Stella, SLiCE, Zavino, Nomad.  But Tacconelli's - the legend - remains King of the Philly Pizza Scene. 
Ying contemplates one more slice

Tacconelli's Pizza on Urbanspoon

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