Friday, June 21, 2013

Review: Charlie's Pizzeria, Norristown PA

In the 1960s and 70s in South Jersey, not too far from Trenton, the term "tomato pie" was used by my favorite pizza joint in Riverside. To me, it was a synonym for pizza. More recently, I've learned that to Trenton natives, tomato pie has a more specific meaning - it is a pizza crust to which cheese is added first and then topped with crushed tomatoes. A primer on the various meanings of tomato pie can be found HERE.
Trenton-style tomato pie from Gennaro's in South Philly

Out in the western suburbs of Philly, "tomato pie" has a different meaning. In Conshohocken and other towns, tomato pie is a rectangular crust, similar to a Sicilian pizza crust, topped with a thick layer of tomato sauce and perhaps a dusting of aged cheese. It's typically made by a bakery and most folks prefer to eat it at room temperature.
Conshohocken Tomato Pie

Also popular in this same region is the "upside down" pizza, by which the cheese goes on first, and then is buried under a layer of tomato sauce. On a Trenton tomato pie, the cheese peeks through the clumps of crushed tomato and gets a nice oven browning; on an "upside down" pie, the cheese is hidden until your first bite. I'm not enamored of the concept because I want the cheese bubbled and browned.
Upside down pie from Marzano's of Exton (now closed)

A colleague from the Blue Bell area told me about a "Red Top" pizza made by Charlie's Pizzeria (also known as Charlie's Pizza and Beer) in Norristown. By her description, it sounded like an "upside down" pie. She's a formidable foodie and told me how much her husband enjoys this pie. He says

"Charlie's red top pizza is great. I love the dough. It feels thicker than most pizza places. The pizza sauce has a lot of flavor and has a little bit of sweetness to it. I like the concept of putting the sauce on top of the cheese. Why? 1) You don't burn the roof of your mouth 2) Your tongue instantly tastes their sauce, while the rest of the pizza compliments it."

 She was kind enough to bring me a slice, which I re-heated at home and is the basis for this review. 
Charlie's Red Top (half mushroom)

Now, I can't draw a full and fair conclusion from one reheated slice, but I do have some distinct impressions.  

The crust was made of ordinary, perhaps even mass-sourced dough. However, it was an above-average vehicle for the sauce and cheese, because it was well-constructed and cooked properly. Crisp and chewy, cooked golden brown, sturdy enough to support the toppings, and not wet anywhere. Its flaw was that it contributed nothing to the flavor of this slice.
A slice of Red Top

The cheese was (as mostly cheese is) creamy and salty and tasty, but ultimately forgettable. It was not, thankfully, entirely covered by the sauce, so it got a little oven browning.

Visually stunning was the great patches of brilliantly red sauce, and the taste fulfilled what the image promised. The sauce was sweet AND salty, and packed a dense tomato punch.  No question, great tomato sauce. If you're gonna feature your sauce and call your pie "Red Top," do so with a great sauce. Check.
Under the hood

I give the crust a 5 for flavor and a 7 for execution, 6 overall. The cheese is a 5, the sauce rates a 9. Overall, this slice comes in at 6.5 -- well above average, better than a frozen pizza, but not destination pie. Charlie needs a major upgrade to the crust to compete with the best pies.

Charlie's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

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