Elmwood Park, New Jersey: Pizza-Town USA, 'America's Favorite Town'
89 US Highway 46, Elmwood Park NJ 07407 (map); 201-797-6172
Pizza style: New York–inspired thin crust
Oven type: Gas oven
The skinny: The nostalgia/kitsch factor may draw you in, but the great thin, crisp pizza will hook you. Oh, and the deep-fried calzones and zeppole, which are fantastic
Notes: If you want a deep-fried calzone, order the small. The large is oven-baked
Price: Plain slice, $1.55 (plus tax); small calzone, $5.24; zeppole, $4.58 a dozen (half orders available)
Geographically speaking, Pizza-Town USA is located in the State of New Jersey, in Elmwood Park, on the side of US Highway 46, between the Garden State Parkway and the Passaic River. Psychically speaking, it is located in the State of Nostalgia.
Raymond Tomo opened Pizza-Town, "America's Favorite Town," in 1958. I can't imagine it's changed much since then. More a roadside snack stand than typical slice joint, it's done up in glossy red, white, and blue paint. Depictions of Uncle Sam abound. The staff works behind a stainless steel–and-glass partition reminiscent of an Eisenhower Era diner or drive-up.
These days, Tomo's children, Lisa, Michele, and Bruce run the show, remaining true to the style of pizza their father made — very thin, crisp crusted pies with a robust homemade sauce and just enough high-quality, part-skim regular mozzarella.
The pizza is delicious. There's no gummy, undercooked dough here. At the same time, it's not crunchy, tough, or overcooked. There's a nice amount of color on the crust and a bit of charring on the underside, along with little bits of crunchy semolina flour left over from the pizza-peel trip into one of the eight hot gas ovens that line the wall behind the staff.
I suppose you want to see what those slices look like. Here you go:
Don't those look like something from an earlier pizza era? The cheese-sauce distribution is somewhat reminiscent of the old coal-oven pizzerias a bit farther east, in New York City, which is actually where the Tomo family moved from before opening Pizza-Town, according to Lisa Tomo, one of the twin sisters who was on hand working the tail end of the lunch rush when I visited.
The Tomos use a special blend of flour (not from King Arthur, even though they wear KA aprons ["They match the building," Lisa Tomo said]) that they say helps them produce the thin, crisp crusts that they consider their signature.
Oh, and about the Tomo sisters? They get a pretty bad rap on the web from people for being mean, rude, nasty. (Especially on Yelp, where they've been compared to Seinfeld's Soup Nazi.) They're not. I think those complainers are thin-skinned. I sat and ate for a good half hour while I watched the sisters interact with people. They're efficient. In that no-nonsense whaddyawant kinda way.
So maybe some of the Yelp reviews (which the sisters have read, by the way) do have a point: It helps to know what you want before you go. The very first second you step through the door, they will ask for your order. (It helps to have your money already in hand, too — cash only here.)
"We know when people are on lunch break," Lisa Tomo said. "We want to get them in and out as fast as possible. When it slows down, that's when you'll see us chat."
The sisters banter with regulars, cracking wise-ass jokes and asking after patrons' families.
Heck, I was the newbiest of n00bs, and they were plenty friendly to me, even before I played the pizza-blogger card* and after chomping my way through most of the menu's greatest hits. Speaking of which, I'm going to give you some advice for eating at Pizza-Town.
Because the slices are so thin, you might want to start with a three-slice lunch if you typically eat two at other pizzerias. While I sat there, I heard a number of three-slice orders. Better yet? Get one or two slices and supplement them with the following:
The deep-fried calzone. As great as the pizza is at Pizza-Town, I might love this calzone more — simply because it's difficult to find places that do deep-fried versions. Loaded with fresh ricotta, part-skim mozzarella, and ham, it is crisp, springy to the bite, and well balanced. There's plenty of ricotta in there, and it will plop out if you squeeze the calzone hard enough, but it's not the sloppy, molten mess that a lot of other places' calzones are.
If you want it deep-fried, order the small calzone. The large "family-size" calzone is oven-baked.
I hate when people tell me, "Save room for dessert," but I'm going to do it to you. You HAVE to try the zeppole. The Tomos make fresh batches throughout the day. They're excellent. The menu lists them as by-the-dozen, but note that they're available in six-piece orders as well.
There are also sub sandwiches on the menu, and I did try Pizza-Town's signature sub, the "Leave It To Us" (gotta love that name) — but I'll be posting about that later on Serious Eats.
Pizza-Town is located on the side of US Highway 46, between the Garden State Parkway and the Passaic River. If you drive this route and have never been, you owe it to yourself to stop in.
Special thanks to all the folks in the comments of last week's post who recommended Pizza-Town. I'd read about it on some great Jersey-based blogs, but you all reminded me and gave me the nudge that got me out there. Thanks!
* But I only played that card after eating my way through most of the menu. Don't worry; I don't think I got any special treatment from the Tomos. In fact, I know I didn't, because they didn't rib me nearly as much as some of the people who walk in while I was there.