Monday, January 11, 2016

Review: Holy Tomato Pies, Blackwood NJ

What is a tomato pie? I grew up in Southern New Jersey, and my family used the term as a synonym for pizza. But it has a very specific meaning in Trenton, NJ, where tomato pie is similar to pizza, but the cheese goes on first and then crushed tomato is applied in uneven dollops. 
Click on any image to enlarge
Nearby in Philadelphia, tomato pie is a thick-crusted pizza dough baked in a rectangular pan, topped with a thick layer of tomato sauce and dusted with Parmesan cheese.

You don't find a Trenton tomato pie in too many spots away from Trenton and its adjacent suburbs, but some good friends alerted me to Holy Tomato Pies in Blackwood, NJ. Blackwood is 43 miles from DeLorenzo's, the world's best Trenton tomato pie.

High school classmates reunite for pizza and BYOB

Holy Tomato Pies looks small inside, but there are three separate dining rooms, each sporting its own fun and funky decor. I was part of a group of seven who visited on a Tuesday night in January. We didn't anticipate a crowded venue, but there is a Tuesday special that features one pizza, two salads, and two drinks for just $20, and the place was buzzing with activity.

We ordered three pies, and we got big family-style orders of their two specialty salads, the House salad and the Caesar. My own meal started with great promise when my raspberry lemonade arrived with fresh lime, blueberries, and raspberries floating in the ball jar serving as a glass.

One of the funky back dining rooms

The salads -  $5 or $6 per person when not included in a special - were superb. Often, the side salad at a pizza joint is a forgettable toss-off, but you'd be remiss to pass up one of these. The House salad was adorned with toasted sesame seeds, cherry tomatoes, pepperoncini, and authentic green olives. The salad recipe was passed down by the owner's mother, and it originated at a restaurant near Dallas, TX. The Caesar sported brown sugar roasted pecans and shaved Parmesan cheese with a flavorful dressing. Seven big guys ate heartily and we still had plenty of salad to take home.

House salad

(Interesting side note - one member of our group sells Sysco supplies to restaurants and pizzerias. I've always assumed that most mom and pop pizza is so forgettable because they buy cheap bulk ingredients from Sysco. That may be true, but I learned that Sysco also carries some high-end stuff, like Grande mozzarella and authentic San Marzano tomatoes. So - if you see a Sysco truck parked behind your favorite pizzeria, it's not necessarily a bad sign.)
Caesar salad

You can customize your pie in just about any way, but the menu features four basic types. The "Original Tomato Pie" features hand crushed tomatoes, fresh garlic, and a light sprinkle of mozzarella cheese; there is a White Pie, and Red Pie with fresh garlic and no cheese, and the "Chicago Pie" which is the White Pie topped with dollops of  tomatoes, fresh garlic, oregano and olive/canola oil blend.

Tomato pie with sausage

We selected a tomato pie topped with sausage, a Chicago pie topped with pepperoni, and a Buffalo chicken specialty pie. I would never choose Buffalo chicken pizza for myself, for a host of pizza purist reasons (Kenji Alt-Lopez tells you why), but most of the group was in favor. More later on that pie!

Chicago pie with pepperoni

The tomato pie and Chicago pie arrived first. I noted that these very large pies (18" or 20" diameter) were given the "Trenton cut" that yields some triangular and some rectangular slices. One slice down the middle, and then 4 or 5 perpendicular cuts. When I asked the owner, she told us she's never been to Trenton!

Buffalo chicken pizza

The crust is made from low-gluten flour with some added honey. It's designed so that it doesn't rise, and indeed this was a thin, flat, and crisp crust. It glistened on top and below with the shimmer of a coat of olive oil, and that allowed for a beautiful golden color and kept it from slipping into "cracker crust" territory. The crust was pliant despite its crisp edges, and the bigger slices were even a bit floppy due to the weight of the toppings. The cornicione remained thin, but there were delightfully large crust bubbles at the perimeter.

Two Steves, digging the pie

On all three pies, the crust was delicious. Not identical to a Trenton tomato pie, but it would please any Trenton native. It had a wonderful flavor of its own, and a near-perfect texture. On appearances, the Chicago pie was not very different from the tomato pie. Each sported a generous amount of tasty fresh crushed tomatoes; the Chicago pie had perhaps a bit more cheese.

Chicago slice

Both of these pies were well balanced in the ratio of sauce and cheese and toppings to the thin crust. Like any Trenton tomato pie and its bar pie and Midwestern pie cousins, you can eat a lot of this stuff. The tomato pie was the winner between the two. The sausage was authentically Italian, applied raw in uneven chunks so that it cooks on the pie. Perfect. 

Buffalo chicken slice

Tomato pie slice

The pepperoni on the Chicago pie was thick-cut and tasted to me more like smoked kielbasa. It was a tasty upgrade over standard pizza shop pepperoni, but I'd like to see an option for the narrow-gauge "spicy cup" pepperoni used at Binge House Pizza.

Beautifully crisp underside

The Buffalo chicken pie arrived last, and we eagerly tore into it. I can say that this was easily the best of this variety that I've tried. The white-meat chicken was tender and moist, and the Buffalo sauce had a wonderful vinegar tang to it, not a blazing heat. For the first time ever, I had a pizza where the chicken topping was an enhancement. This is not the typical Buffalo chicken carelessly tossed on top of an inferior cheap pizza to fill the bellies of drunk college kids - this is a chicken topping prepared by someone with authentic kitchen skills.

Another look under the hood

These were three wonderful pizzas, starting with that ideal crispy thin base and a judicious amount of sauce and cheese. I'm curious to know if the fresh mozzarella option (available on the Margherita specialty pie) would make these even better. The only other area for improvement is that I think the garlic came out a jar - but that did not slow our rate of devouring these pies.

Big fat cookie with ice cream

Holy Tomato Pies also has a menu of house-made desserts. I never have room for dessert after pizza, but my 6 companions did. Some ordered the huge home-made cookies served with ice cream (they looked as big as hamburger patties), and others chose the "Sopapilla Cheesecake." 

I did have a taste of that cheesecake, and it was staggeringly good. So good it could make you forget that you just ate wonderful pizza. I was floored by this dessert; it's as good a confection as I can remember from any venue. I'd go there just for the cheesecake. Astonishing stuff.

Sopapilla cheesecake

Serving 3 huge pies to a tightly packed table is a bit of an art. The owners at Holy Tomato Pie have some clever tricks, like a decked-out former paint can now serving as a pizza stand so that the height of the pies can be staggered. The staff was smart enough to bring 2 pies at first, and then third was delivered to our table fresh and hot only when we had eaten enough to remove one of the first trays. Small detail, but it's a sign of how the owners truly understand customer service.

Owner Terri Berkholder (center) with two of her daughters

We had a short chat with owner Terri Berkholder, who bought the restaurant with her daughters in 2010. Today, it's staffed by Terri and daughters April, Summer, and Jessica. There is also a "Holy Tomato Too" in nearby Mullica Hill. There's a lot of magic happening when talented cooks are serving signature dishes with passion. 

We were unanimous in our love of the pizza, the salads, the desserts, the venue, the service, the ambiance. This is a grand-slam home run pizza experience. Blackwood is only about 20 minutes from Philadelphia, and this destination pie is surely worth the trip. 

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