De Lorenzo's Tomato Pies, Trenton, New Jersey


Sibling Rivalry: The sign on the left marks your arrival at De Lorenzo's Hamilton Avenue, a favorite of Chambersburg residents, as well as the celebrities whose pictures dot the walls inside. De Lorenzo's Hudson Street, right, is a converted row house with limited seating and no public restroom. Arrive prior to opening hours, as the hungry crowd grows quickly. Otherwise, a two-hour wait is not uncommon.

DE LORENZO'S HAMILTON
Location: 1007 Hamilton Ave., Trenton, NJ 08629
Phone: 609-393-2952
Payment: Cash only
The Skinny: Bigger and more diner friendly than its sister pizzeria; crust has a more consistent crispness

DE LORENZO'S HUDSON
Location: 530 Hudson St., Trenton, NJ 08611
Phone: 609-695-9534
Payment: Cash only
The Skinny: Preferred among locals. Smoky-tasting crust is even thinner than sister pizzeria. Get here early; dining room is small and lines—and wait—can get long

VALUE ADD
The Yankees' Double A affiliate, the Trenton Thunder, play right around the corner from De Lorenzo's Hudson. So if you're a Yankees fan, you can catch a game and get a pie and make it a cool day
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH DEFABRITUS, Slice Correspondent .::. Recently, while perusing Slice, I asked editor-in-chief Adam K. why there was no mention of the Trenton, New Jersey’s legendary De Lorenzo's Tomato Pies.

"Never heard of it," he replied. I was shocked; any pizza lover worth his or her sauce knows De Lorenzo's. [Hey: What are you saying, Rich!? — Ed.]

"Nope. Why don't you write a review?" Adam said. And with that, I gave myself (and my family) an excuse to make the trip before celebrating the New Year.

For those not in the know, there are actually two De Lorenzo's (one on Hamilton Avenue, the other on Hudson Street) in an area known as Chambersburg, traditionally a final stop for many Italian immigrants at the turn of the last century. Although the history is murky, Americho "Rick" De Lorenzo Sr. and Alexander "Chick" De Lorenzo opened up separate operations in what amounts to a friendly sibling rivalry. To this day, Rick's son, Rick De Lorenzo Jr., operates the Hamilton Avenue location, while Chick's son-in-law, Gary Amico, operates the Hudson Street establishment.

Ask any local about De Lorenzo's and the typical reply is "Hamilton or Hudson?" since each has its own rabid following. You see, while both make tomato pies, there are subtle differences and nuances that invariably pull the diner's allegiance to one side or the other. Both are wildly popular, and you’ll always see long lines of people waiting to get seated, even in inclement weather.

One more thing: In Trenton, it's called "tomato pie," not pizza. Although the terms are interchangeable, there is a body of myth and lore attempting to distinguish tomato pie from pizza. The generally accepted explanation is that a tomato pie is built as follows: dough, cheese, toppings, and then sauce.

Our plan was to go to De Lorenzo's on Hamilton Avenue for lunch followed by an early dinner at De Lorenzo's on Hudson Street for a comparative review. Since neither location takes reservations (and both often leave the phone off the hook), we were a little concerned that we may need to call ahead to "reserve" dough, but we threw caution to the wind and decided to take a chance on walking in.

Hamilton Avenue
Commonly considered to be the more "diner friendly" location, the first thing you notice is how cozy the place is. The sign says "De Lorenzo's Pizza," but don't be fooled, they serve authentic Trenton tomato pie. There is one small dining room with booths and tables, replete with wood-paneled walls and music in the background (think Jerry Vale). The open kitchen is straight to the back, and Rick De Lorenzo Jr. serves as your host and cashier. As long as I have been patronizing De Lorenzo's (15 years or so), Rick doesn’t appear to have aged a bit. He's still every bit as feisty, too—if you are fussy or difficult, he'll let you know you're agitating him.

The place was packed, but we lucked out and found an open booth. We sat down and were quickly greeted by our bow-tied clad waiter. Each table has a small, laminated menu, and you can have anything you like—as long as it’s a tomato pie. If you're looking for calzones or garlic knots, try someplace else; the next person in line will gladly take your spot. Since it was just me, my wife, and our two young children, we decided one large pie would suffice. As a purist, I normally eschew any toppings, but for some reason, we elected to try half of the pie with sausage, the other half "tomato and cheese," otherwise known as "plain." Keeping with local tradition, we both ordered birch beer to drink.

The piping hot pie was placed on our table in about 10 minutes, which is decent given the amount of customers they have to serve. Immediately your eyes are drawn to the bright red color of the sauce, not the darker "burgundy" color you might find on a run-of-the-mill pizza joint's offerings. There is also a lot less cheese than you'd expect, and just the slightest bit of charring and bubbling at the top crust's edge. The pie was cut into 10 triangular slices, most likely with a pizza-cutting wheel.

Halfsies: The De Lorenzo's Hamilton Avenue tomato pie. We ordered this pie half sausage, half tomato and cheese. Lines at this location begin to form around noon. The shop then closes at 1:30 p.m., and reopens at 4 pm for dinner.

We reached for the plain slices first. Everyone has his or her own reason for craving a De Lorenzo's tomato pie. Mine is the crust. When picked up, the Hamilton Avenue crust stood perfectly horizontal from crust edge to tip and was in no way weighted down by sauce, cheese, or oil—no small feat for a thin-crust pie. A look at the crust's bottom showed charring similar to that on the top crust edge as well as what appeared to be corn meal in the dough, conceivably used in lieu of semolina to prevent the pie from sticking to the peel or oven.

A bite into the slice was accompanied by the requisite "crunch." I am always disappointed by pizza that is soft at the center and gets crunchy toward the edge; somehow the pizzaiolo at De Lorenzo's consistently avoids this pitfall. Every bite snapped, crackled, and popped. The crust was light and airy, with excellent flavor and chewiness, seemingly deep-fried. Keep in mind that this pie is cooked in a traditional gas-fired oven yet had many of the qualities you would expect from a brick oven.

The sauce tasted as good as it looked, tangy and sweet with no unnecessary additives floating in it; adding salt or pepper to enhance the flavor seems blasphemous. Another peeve I have with "traditional" pizza is the blanket of cheese that is formed on top. Many of us have experienced that eager first bite only to have all the cheese slide off in one piece, burning your lips and chin. Not so with De Lorenzo's. This is a tomato pie, so the cheese is sprinkled in much less abundance. As a result, each bite leaves cheese-string trails from your mouth back to the retreating slice but never whole globs. The balance struck between the sauce and cheese is about as close to perfection as you could get, this is really great eating!

The sausage slice was a different story. The taste was fantastic, no doubt, but the extra oil from the meat drenched the crust and weakened it. That meant the crust didn't crunch like the plain slices did, a disappointment from my perspective. While sausage is one of the more popular toppings at both De Lorenzo's locations, my suggestion to first timers is to go with a plain pie for a true representation of the shops' craft.

In the end, our tab was about $15 (excluding tip, cash only), and Rick rang us up on a circa-1950 cash register, a testament to how mom-and-pop De Lorenzo's still is.

Hudson Street
A few hours had past since our lunch at De Lorenzo's Hamilton Avenue, and we were excited about our upcoming dinner at De Lorenzo's Hudson Street. Our time of arrival was 4:30 pm, just prior to the mad crush usually experienced around 5:00 pm or so.

Hudson Street is nowhere near as diner friendly as Hamilton Avenue. First, the restaurant is a converted row house, so accommodations are tight. At most, there are 15 booths or tables, with not much wiggle room. Second, there are no public restrooms, so make sure you take care of "business" prior to your arrival—and keep drinking to a minimum. The décor was quite similar to Hamilton Avenue, again with wood paneling, only in a much smaller setting. There are two ovens in the center of the floor, and a single television is usually tuned to a football game during the winter months.

We were second in line for seating, and it was quite a chilly day, so we were fortunate to be standing indoors rather than outdoors. There is no host, and seating is first come, first served. The queue resembles more a jumbled mass of loiterers snaking out the door and down the street, relying on self-management to ensure people sit in the appropriate order of arrival.

It took about 20 minutes before a booth opened up for us. Unlike Hamilton Avenue, there are no menus, so you have to order as if you know the deal. Here's a primer: There are small and large pies, eight and 10 slices, respectively. There are fewer varieties than Hamilton Avenue, but the mainstays are the usual—tomato and cheese, pepperoni, anchovies, sausage, peppers, even a white-clam pie that is said to be amazing.

Having eaten at Hudson Street before, I was well aware of these peculiarities. Gary Amico, who operates the restaurant, took our order. Given our earlier experience with the sausage topping at Hamilton Avenue, we opted for a plain pie. Birch beer accompanied the meal (of course).

PLAIN AND SIMPLE: The De Lorenzo's Hudson Street tomato pie. We ordered this pie with tomato and cheese only, to maximize crunch. Note the fine charring and golden crust, which tastes as good as it looks. Note the hours at DeLorenzo's Hudson (right); they're open for lunch on Fridays only.

It took about 45 minutes before our pie arrived, largely due to the limited cooking capacity at Hudson Street. With only two ovens, there are only a few pies cooking at any one time. Actually, the entire tomato-pie-making process seems to be done with more care than any other pizza establishment I've seen, so you feel like the result is a bit more special. The pie was cut in front of us with a knife—first in half, then into asymmetric slices.

Once you taste it, you know the wait was worth it. The taste was completely different from Hamilton Avenue. The crust has a smoky taste, not unlike something from a wood-fired oven. The crust is thinner than Hamilton Avenue's already thin crust but still substantial enough to maintain balance with the cheese and sauce. If there is an Achilles heel to Hudson Street's tomato pie, however, it's the inconsistent crunch; the pie is crisper at the edge, and gets softer toward the middle. However, at its crispest, it is without equal. This suits some people just fine, but to me, it was a small letdown compared to Hamilton Avenue's consistent crunch and firmness.

No other apologies needed, this pie rocks. The ingredients seemed slightly more fresh and flavorful than Hamilton Avenue, although not enough to quibble over. Interestingly, where the Hamilton Avenue tomato pie provides a consistent taste experience from bite to bite, the Hudson Street tomato pie shakes things up a bit. Some bites impart the taste of crust and cheese, with a smidge of olive oil. Other bites give you amazing tomato flavor and a crunch that is near potato-chip perfection. Each bite is something to look forward to with anticipation, and you are never disappointed. Examining the pie should indicate as much—it looks a lot like an authentic Neapolitan pizza Margherita, with splashes of tomatoes (seeds intact) and bits of cheese sprinkled about.

This pie was my wife's favorite. I have always preferred Hamilton Avenue to Hudson Street, if only for their consistent taste, but my wife has never shared my enthusiasm. From the second she tasted the Hudson Street pie, I knew she was hooked. To her, this was by far the best pie she had ever eaten. I can't argue with her—this is a darn good tomato pie, and I'd put it up against pizza from any place in the country.

Our tab was about $14, before tip. The mechanical cash register here seemed even older than the one at Hamilton Avenue. Our stomachs filled, we left pondering the wait for the eager souls lined up around the block and looked forward to our next excursion to Trenton for De Lorenzo's.

In restrospect, my favorite was the Hamilton Avenue pie, but I could be swayed. My wife (and 3-year-old daughter) preferred the Hudson Street version. You can't go wrong with either location, but given the ambiance (or lack thereof) and legend backing it, Hudson Street is generally the preferred choice among locals. Do yourself a favor and make it a point to visit one (or both) De Lorenzo's to taste the best tomato pies Trenton has to offer.

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