Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: Kate & Al's Pizza Pies - Columbus Farmers Market Pizza, Part One

In the parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania near Philadelphia, there remain some large shopping complexes that are - more or less - the precursor to malls. They are an old-fashioned concept, combining farmers' market, flea market, and independent shops selling cheap goods or repair services. One of the biggest was the Pennsauken Mart, which closed several years ago.
A slice at Kate and Al's. Click any pic to enlarge.

One of the best remaining is Roots Country Market in Lancaster County, which is also home to the fantastic Norma's Pizza. Delaware County is home to Booth's Corner Farmer's Market, which has a wonderful counterspace spot called Cajun Kate's. All of these places feature long, narrow buildings typically built from cinder block. You'll find an antique dealer next to an Amish bakery next to a vacuum repair shop next to a fried chicken stand next to a store full of date-expired foods.

The Produce Building

One of the biggest is Columbus Farmer's Market, just a little bit south of Trenton, but clearly in a part of South Jersey that remains rural. I last visited there in the 1970s, but I have a distinct memory of enjoying a rectangular slice of pizza there. I had been hearing a lot of good things about Kate & Al's, so I found a sunny Saturday in November to pay a visit.

Scenes inside the Columbus Market

The indoor stores are arranged in a large U shape. Kate & Al's Pizza Pies anchors the Southern end, and Pete's Pizza is the bookend to the North. Both offer similar thick square slices; we'll talk about Pete's in Part Two. Also at this end, I saw a huge line of people at Stoltzfus BBQ.
Queueing up for Stoltzfus BBQ

Happily, when I got to Kate & Al's, I did not face any line; I understand they do get very busy on Sundays. They sell whole pies and half pies with a variety of toppings, but only the plain cheese pie can be ordered by the slice. I got two of these for $2.25 each, and they came on two undersized paper plates.

Like most rectangular pies, the slices here are baked in pans. The amount of sauce was double or triple you'd find on a Sicilian pizza or a Detroit-style pie. The cheese, however, was less than half of the typical pizza amount. Structurally, then, this pie had something in common with a Philly style tomato pie, except that it is served hot and has a modest amount of mozzarella. The closest comparison I can make is the square pie at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn.
Two slices

The crust, a little pale on the bottom, nonetheless had a nice crispness to it and was suprisingly light in the body. Despite that, it held up nicely under the sea of sauce. I can't remember a slice of pizza that had more sauce than this. It was a huge positive, though, because the sauce was bursting with fresh tomato flavor. It was messy to eat, but delightful.  There was just enough cheese to keep it interesting.

I was probably the only patron there who doesn't eat this stuff regularly. Just hanging around for 10 minutes, I heard a lot of happy anticipation from others placing orders. This pie defies categorization, but it was a delightful throwback. It can't match the balance of L&B square pie, or the artistry of the Detroit pies from Norma, but I loved it. 

One web reviewer reports that this style of pizza has been served at Columbus Market for more than fifity years. Apparently Pete's Pizza preceded - and led to - Kate & Al's:

Pete came from Hungary and wanted to start a business. A pizza restaurant seemed the only thing he could afford, but he did not know how to make pizza. So, he just started experimenting and kept notes on everything he did. He said, “The secret to great pie is to experiment, keep notes and develop a feel for the dough and the sauce. A recipe only gets you so far. To make outstanding pizza you need passion.”  Pete was a perfectionist and a very friendly guy. He started selling pizzas at Columbus Market in the 1950s and later sold the business to a relative who re-named it Kate & Al’s. Pete taught several customers that were active in their churches how to make pizza so they would have something good for the teens. In the 1960s Pete opened up again at the other end of the market.

Kate & Al's Pizza Pies is a tradition, and a grand one. When you sell your pies for fifty years, you are doing something right. Absolutely worth the trip to Columbus, which is really a trip back in time.

Kate & Al's Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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