Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Revisit: Papa's Tomato Pies, Trenton NJ

A few months ago, we made our first-ever visit to Papa's Tomato Pies on Chambers Street in Trenton NJ. We were amazed, and delighted, at the near-perfect execution of quintessential old-school Trenton pizza. Thin crust with a satisfying char and snap, hearty red sauce, judiciously applied cheese, and generous chunks of real Italian sausage.

To get a baseline, I generally want to try a plain or sausage slice before I venture into specialty pies (for instance, I went to Frank Pepe's and didn't try the clam pie). But after our first visit, more than one Trenton native told me to try the "mustard pie" at Papa's. Whaaaa? Here is what they do -- spread a coat of mustard on the crust before the application of sauce and cheese. "Sounds weird, tastes great" was the universal endorsement.
Good seats easy to get at Trenton Thunder!

Last week, I went to see the Trenton Thunder with FEEP (fellow enthusiast for eating pizza) Jr. We ate too much stadium food -- a decent pulled pork sandwich at "Boomer's BBQ" and an awesome oversized bucket of crab fries from Chickie & Pete's -- and hence we were not hungry for more than a slice. Still, we decided to get some good Jersey pie to take back to Pennsylvania. We toyed with going to Nomad Pizza in nearby Hopewell, but in my experience the Neapolitan pies really suffer if you don't eat them hot out of the oven. On the other hand, just last week I enjoyed the last few slices from my months-ago visit to Papa's, having pulled them from the freezer to reheat at home. We made the short trip to Papa's.

On my first visit, we had arrived at night. The deteriorating neighborhood looked a little better in daylight, but not the large red awning that identifies Papa's. It is faded, torn, and taped over. Time for a new one!  Inside, we ordered two pies to go -- one mustard pie with half sausage, half pepperoni for me, and one pie with meatballs and onions for FEEP Jr.
Pepperoni pie, from our previous visit

As we were loading the pies into the trunk, FEEP Jr wanted to try one slice of the mustard pie. We tried to lift out a hot slice, and it proved too wet/unstable. So, we let it sit for the 15 minute drive back to PA, and then we were more easily able to make the swap. I took a few bites of a meatball slice while it was still warm. Once again, my smell and taste senses were transported back to the perfect pizza of my youth -- Rosa's in Riverside NJ. As good as all the flavors are, the key differentiator is the texture.

On the drive, even though the mustard pie was stored in the trunk, its aroma filled the cabin. And the dominant smell was the mustard!  I commented to  FEEP Jr. that it smelled like I had a trunk full of stadium hot dogs. As soon as I got home, another hour later, I reheated several slices of the mustard pie.  Time to taste and evaluate.

Overall, this pie had excellent balance of textures -- the crust held up to the sauce and cheese toppings. But it was a tad wetter than my previous Papa's pies, and perhaps the mustard adds just a bit of moisture. How was the taste? Well, this was wonderful pizza. All of the elements that make Trenton tomato pie so special were present, and then the additional mustard flavor. The mustard (I still can't be sure if it was yellow or brown mustard) was present, but not overwhelming. It almost had the flavoring effect of "one more topping" albeit an invisible one. I loved this pie, but probably a little less than the same pie without mustard. But it triggered a Key Pizza Theory for me!

Last year at a summer party in Staten Island, I asked the locals which is the best pizza on the island. They were unanimous -- "Denino's." Subsequently, I visited Denino's and I loved it (full review is on this blog). Like a Trenton pie, it featured a thin and sturdy crust. Like a Trenton pie, it is defined by the base, not the toppings, although of course the toppings and sauce were superb. Like a Trenton pie, the cheese is a role player (unlike the soupy puddles of buffalo mozz that float on too many Neapolitan efforts). "Having said that," what REALLY distinguished the Denino's pie was the saltiness of the sauce. I am a salt fiend; I salt almost every meat or vegetable. I love the whole sweet-and-salty thing; I routinely salt pizza before tasting it; I even salt DiFara and DeLorenzo pies. But this Denino's pie did not need any added surface salt.

We all have different desires/tolerances for salt in food, but for many of us, more salt = more tasty. And I think that one reason folks love Denino's pie is that it has more salt. Now, no amount of salt is going to make Domino's or Papa John's Pizza worth eating, but if you take a superb pie and make it a little saltier, wow! We are accustomed to doctoring up our pies with red pepper flakes, garlic powder, grated cheese, but perhaps the most powerful condiment is the simplest.

And that may explain the popularity of the mustard pie. Mustard is very salty! At the small price of adding a little moisture to the overall mix, you get an added salty dimension. I would not be shocked if a ketchup pizza proved equally successful. In the final analysis, the mustard pie for me is almost as good as their conventional pie. Even reheated the next day, the extra moisture under the cheese made it slide off too easily. I love the extra salt, but I can apply it from the top.

I got a warm feeling sitting in the cozy dining room at Papa's as we waited for our pies. If you are a regular, you know that feeling. If you haven't been, it's a treat you shouldn't miss. Even as pizza lovers can revel in the growth of new hip places crafting epicurean Neapolitan pizzas, the number of old-school authentic pizza joints is shrinking. It's worth your time to wait to get into DiFara or DeLorenzo's (now only in Robbinsville NJ), but Papa's may be the best opportunity to experience destination pizza the way that regular folks have enjoyed it for 75 years. My love for DeLorenzo's pie is undiminished, but Papa's is my Go-To place in Trenton.

1 comment:

  1. The new awning is on its way! Thanks for the positive review~