When it comes to pizza, I like it topped with nostalgia. Thus I spent a frustrating lunchtime trying to eat one of the famous "tomato pies" that are native to the Trenton, New Jersey, area in one of the region's decades-old restaurants ("tomatorias," perhaps?) that pioneered the style. Unfortunately, the places I wanted to try, Papa's Tomato Pies and the original location of De Lorenzo's Tomato Pies, are in neighborhoods that have changed so much since the restaurants opened that they simply cannot support a lunchtime business. I found them both shuttered, opening at 4 p.m.—a little late for lunch.
I was particularly interested in trying Papa's because it purports to be the second-oldest pizzeria in America—founded in 1912, a few years after Lombardi's fired up its oven—but perhaps more important because it is America's continuously operating pizzeria (Lombardi's was closed for almost a decade before re-opening under a different group of owners in 1994).
Unable to enjoy the form within the hallowed halls of what you might call a pizza museum, I settled for decidedly more modern digs and learned a thing or two along the way.
DeLorenzo's Tomato Pies
DeLorenzo's Tomato Pies
2350 US Hwy 33, Robbinsville NJ 08691; 609-341-8480; delorenzostomatopies.com
Pizza Style: Tomato pies
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Among the skinniest pies around, the pizzas here, despite the modern surroundings, are part of a grand tradition of tomato pies in the Trenton area
Price: Small pie, $11; large, $14
First up I went to the new location of De Lorenzo's Tomato Pies, which is just a few miles from the original. It is situated in a thoroughly modern edifice that couldn't be more different than the cramped row house of the Hudson Street location. "The pies are the same," owner Sal Amico assured me as I was leaving. Same cheese, same dough, same tomatoes. He did concede that the water might be different, as it comes from a different source, and of course so is the the decor. Amico had seen me taking a picture of the outside of the restaurant and asked me, from across the parking lot, how I liked my pie. I told him I liked it a lot. I wasn't lying either.
The pies at De Lorenzo's are part of a long and grand tradition of pizza-making in the Trenton area. While the original De Lorenzo's dates back to 1947, the genre probably got its start in 1912 when Papa's opened up shop. At De Lorenzo's the crust is thin and impossibly crisp. The cheese is placed directly on top of the dough in the perfect proportion to act as a medium between the crust and the tomatoes that litter the pie and give the dish its name.
The pies are not cut into triangles, despite the pizzas' circular shape, but into squares, approximating a tavern cut. This is accomplished with a small knife, and when I commented to one of the countermen apportioning a pie that I liked the technique, he retorted that he hated it: "It burns my fingers."
I am not surprised. Steam billows from the pies long after they're deposited on your table. The thin crust retaining more heat than seems possible. Biting into a slice, once it has cooled enough, elicits an audible crunch (when it has not cooled enough it will elicit an audible yelp, from you, not the pie). The genius of the recipe reveals itself as soon as the tomatoes hit your palate. They are vibrant and intensely flavored and much more acidic than sweet. These tomatoes (sourced from California) are bold and upfront and are the dominant flavor of the pie, which makes sense. The cheese, mild and milky, and the crackerlike crust don't contribute much in the way of flavor, but they do add some textural contrast. As good as the regular pie is, don't miss one with sausage. It comes dispersed over the pie in large, juicy nuggets and is redolent with fennel.
674 U.S. 206, Bordentown NJ 08505; 609-298-6771; palermostomatopie.com
Pizza Style: Tomato pie
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: As fine an example of a tomato pie as I could hope to find, great Sicilian as well
Price: Small tomato pie, $8.45; large, $11.95
Next up I hit Palermo's in Bordentown. I had reviewed Rosario's Pizza last week, and Slice'r Robert Luessen chastised me for not having tried Palermo's. To be honest I had never heard of the place but am glad Robert chimed in. Palermo's doesn't quite have the history of some of the other tomato-pie joints around—it has been open around 20 years—but the pizzas it serves are simply superb. And owner Marco Graziano, a Sicilian immigrant with a passion for soccer, will make you feel right at home with his gregarious personality.
The pizzas at Palermo's differ from the one I so enjoyed at De Lorenzo's in that the dough is more substantial and not nearly as crisp. To be sure there is plenty of crunch and snap, but there's also some pliancy and softness that offers a textural contrast missing at De Lorenzo's. The architecture is the same—cheese placed directly on dough, sauce over that—but the tomatoes are different, sweeter and heavily perfumed with oregano.
The pies are apportioned into triangular slices and served on an ingenious corrugated cardboard square that allows any oil to drip off, rather than soaking into the crust. There is a wonderful synergy to the pies here, the herbaceous tomato hits your palate first, in true tomato-pie style, before the creamy, salty cheese and the crust take the stage.
And now for something completely different....
Since Graziano hails from Sicily, I felt I should try a slice of Sicilian. It is offered "tomato pie" style and was one of the finest of the style I have eaten. The crust came beautifully burnished with a crisp exterior and a soft, yeasty inner core. The cheese, dripping off the sides in a molten slick, adding a richness to balance the sweetness and acidity of the tomatoes.
I still want to eat at the original De Lorenzo's and at Papa's Tomato Pies, but ultimately it is the tomato pies themselves that are important. While I may love to wallow in tradition and nostalgia, surrounded by artifacts from the distant past in dusty old dining rooms, I try to remember that it is the food and the ethos behind it that is the real touchstone of the past, not the materialistic trappings of physical location. As long as the pies are made with care, attention, and love, tradition is being honored. And both De Lorenzo's and Palermo's are being deeply respectful of tradition.