Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Ranking the Philly Style Tomato Pies

The Internet is awash in pizza rankings. Some are expert, some are clumsy, some are downright pointless. Here we attempt, instead, to offer some guide to the best Philly Style Tomato Pies.

First, we have to define tomato pie. We've done so extensively HERE. For this ranking, we are talking about the Philadelphia/Conshohocken style of tomato pie, which is a big rectangle with a thick airy crust (much like a Sicilian pizza), a signature tomato sauce, and little or no cheese. These are found in a bakery as often as in a pizzeria, and are frequently enjoyed at room temperature. Hence, this comparison does not include the Trenton tomato pie or the New Haven version.

Note: I've dubbed it Philly/Conshohocken style, but this thick-crust scant-cheese room-temp bakery-sourced pie is also common in other parts of the northeast.

Let's meet the contenders (click on any one for the full review) :

Of course, there are many other tomato pies in the Philly region. I did get to sample some at the South Philly Pizza Olympics, but I didn't gather enough info to fully and fairly evaluate the pies from Aversa, Cacia, and Santucci's.

Now, before the judgement, some disclaimers. My heartfelt pizza love is for the Trenton/New Haven tomato pie, then thin-crust bar pie, then Neapolitan and New York style. The Philly tomato pies and Sicilian pizzas rank considerably behind those (but still ahead of Chicago style pizza casserole). That helps explain why I haven't sampled the dozens of other tomato pie purveyors in the Delaware Valley. If you know a great one, please post it in the comments.

Because the crust is thick, puffy, and often lacking the flavor and character of a great Trenton or Neapolitan pie, and further because it typically has little or no cheese, a Philly tomato pie can best be evaluated on the strength of the tomato sauce.
Tony Roni's

Coming in at Number Three is Tony Roni's. In our review we noted that, of all the "tomato pie I've eaten, this was the first one that sold me on the room temperature approach." Notably, even though finishing third in this mini-contest, Tony Roni's wins the Philly region prize - read on to see why.
L&B Spumoni Gardens

Our Number Two finisher is L&B Spumoni Gardens, near Coney Island in Brooklyn. Famous to New Yorkers and to pizza congnoscenti everywhere, L&B is not known by Philly area residents, and it certainly doesn't call its product "tomato pie." It's known as "square" or "Sicilian" or both. I could not detect, on my visits there, the cheese alleged to be under the sauce. Whatever you call it, it is the only tomato pie I've tasted where the crust could be the star. "Ethereal" is not hyperbole for this thick, part airy and part dense crust. It took me several visits to fully appreciate it - but I finally understand what makes L&B a legendary pizza stop.
La Sicilia

Number One is La Sicilia, in Belleville, NJ. On my visit, I rated the sauce a perfect 10. I can't do better than to repeat what I wrote after my visit: 
"The tomato sauce, which is mostly chunks, was as delicious as any I can remember. Such balance, such vibrant flavors! This is not a pizza or a granma pie; it is a tomato pie and a wonderful one. The crust was simply a palette, and a crisply durable one, to convey this awesome red tomato topping. I sat in a lot of crappy traffic to get this pie and I'm VERY glad I did. Usually, tomato pie is improved by the addition of some cheese, but this time I preferred the slices that had none."
On balance, even though many revere the Philly style tomato pie, there's plenty of room for improvement. Baked in a pan, the pie begins at a disadvantage, but that shouldn't mean that the crust has little character. Dom DiMarco makes a fabulous square pie in a pan at Brooklyn's DiFara (well, sure, he uses a pint of olive oil for each pie). 
Square pie at Di Fara

Too often, the tomato pie crust lacks flavor and texture, tasting as though it had come from a supermarket. Imagine an L&B crust with that La Sicilia sauce!  Still, is the thick crust too much to overcome? Could it ever deliver the satisfying snap of an al taglio Roman slice? Share your thoughts!
Roman pizza


  1. well I have had different versions of tomato pie heated and at room temperature in the five county region, and in one case some other place came close to Corropolese Norristown, but perhaps I am bias after trying 20 different versions of tomato pike including Morabito, some were good some not so good, but its in the sauce if it aint in the dough. Mr. Dave Runner

  2. Forget them all. Marchiano's in Manayunk wins the crown for me. I live 2 miles from Coropolese and drive right on by. MEH. Crap.

  3. Thanks for the comments, and for putting Marchiano's on my radar. What makes it better than other Philly tomato pies? PQ