Trenton, not too long ago, was a well-known town for food, especially Italian food. Top performers of the day enlivened the bars and checkered table cloth establishments — and the pizza restaurants. Trenton was the midpoint between Philadelphia and New York, so entertainers invariably would stop for tomato pie as they drove from one town to the next.
“There was no town like Trenton for pizza,” says Nick Azzaro, owner of historic Papa’s Tomato Pie. “You had to be in Trenton on a Friday night for pizza.”
Trenton’s claim as a food capital continued despite the obvious changes in the city, and thanks to three establishments — Papa’s, DeLorenzo’s Pizza, and DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies — that reputation was maintained, and these legendary restaurants with their old-school crafted pies delivered satisfaction.
But in less than two years the two DeLorenzo restaurants closed their Trenton doors for new ones in the suburbs.
Then — to the shock of many — Papa’s announced that it too was moving, making it clear that the great Trenton pizza (or tomato pie) tradition had entered a new chapter.
Fittingly the guidebooks need to be redrawn for those looking to find their beloved pies (or taste them for the first time) and tell where the pies are.
Papa’s Tomato Pies
Papa’s Tomato Pies just open ed its doors at 19 Robbinsville-Allentown Road, Robbinsville, near the intersection with Route 130.
While the last to move from the state capital (its former Trenton location was at 804 Chambers Street), Papa’s is one of the city’s oldest pie players and has a slice in pizza history.
In 2011 owner Azzaro settled a longstanding debate with the New York City-based Lombardi’s, established in 1905 and recognized as the first pizza-serving restaurant in the United States.
That debate — chronicled in the Star Ledger, the New York Times, and on National Public Radio — rested on which restaurant could call itself the oldest pizzeria in America.
Though seven years younger than Lombardi’s and having moved its operations a few times, Papa’s has been open continuously since 1912 (except for when it closed for a few days after a fire).
Lombardi’s has also moved, but it was closed for 10 years, reopening in 1994. That 10-year hiatus settled things, and Papa’s was declared the oldest continuously run pizza restaurant in the nation.
The original Papa — Giuseppe — emigrated as a young boy from Naples, the place where modern pizza more or less emerged in the late 1800s.
While it is unclear how much Giuseppe brought with him from the old country, it is clear that he worked at Joe’s Pizza. That Trenton establishment opened in 1910 and is recognized as the second pizzeria to open in the country. The shop that still used the name closed in the 1990s.
Giuseppe — now “Joe” — Papa opened his own restaurant when he was 17. It was there that the tomato pie was firmly established in Trenton and the tradition took hold.
There is also the pedigree that has kept allows Papa’s the title of the longest family-operated tomato pie restaurant in the country: Azzaro’s father, Abbie, was a pie man who married Tessie, Joe Papa’s daughter.
Papa’s Tomato Pies, 19 Robbinsville-Allentown Road, Robbinsville, Monday through Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 4 to 9:30 p.m. 609-208-0006. www.papastomatopies.com.
A longtime oasis at 1007 Hamilton Avenue, DeLorenzo’s Pizza was run by Rick DeLorenzo Sr. for a good portion of the 20th century before handing it off to his son in 2002.
Rick Jr. then opened a branch of the store as a counter in Risoldi’s Thriftway supermarket at the shopping center at Sloan Avenue and Quakerbridge Road. That helped pave the way for the famous pizza shop to move this past April to the Sloan Avenue building formerly used by a Bob Evans restaurant.
The decision to move came slowly, but after a steady decline in costumers, Rick Jr. says in an interview in the Hamilton Post, “We’re one of the few [old] restaurants left in [Trenton]. It used to be like the restaurant capital of New Jersey. Little by little, everyone’s moving out. I held on as long as I could.”
The final decision was an ingredient he believes makes a difference to his product. “I had to make sure (the new restaurant) had Trenton water.” Rich Jr., 57, is grooming his son, Michael, to continue the business.
DeLorenzo’s Pizza, 147 Sloan Avenue, Hamilton (near Exit 65A off I-295), Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 9:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; and Sundays, 4 to 9 p.m. 609-393-2952.www.delorenzospizza.com.
DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies
The landmark DeLorenzo’s, formerly on 530 Hudson Street, was known for its pies as well as its anachronistic yet iconic cash register, lack of bathrooms (it had predated the code requiring one), its aversion to answering telephones, and the long lines for a booth.
While the location has changed, the Zagat New Jersey restaurant review listing says the taste can still be found: “this 66-year-old Trenton-born ‘classic’ (operated by one branch of a famous ’za clan) still attracts legions of fans thanks to its ‘absolutely delicious’ pizza with crust that’s ‘perfectly charred.’ You can still ‘expect long waits’ in the new digs, which are a ‘dressed up’ version of the old, and while it’s BYO, insiders advise ‘birch beer goes best with the pie.’”
Gary and Eileen Amico ran the restaurant until January, 2012, when they announced they were retiring and closed the Trenton landmark. Eileen had inherited the restaurant from her father, Chick, and is the cousin of Rick DeLorenzo Sr.
Their son, Sam Amico, 42, had already opened a DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies in Robbinsville in 2007, moving the tradition from outside the city limits and serving patrons who had also moved from the city. The younger Amico lives in Robbinsville with his wife and son.
His parents — unable to stop making dough in the literal sense — now show up to continue the tradition. A note on the restaurant’s website pretty well sums things up. “We had celebrated 66 years in Trenton’s Chambersburg before closing the doors on our Hudson Street location in early 2012. We’re happy to continue the tradition at our unique Robbinsville location just a few miles west of Trenton where it all began.”
DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies, 2350 Route 33, Robbinsville. Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, 4 to 10 p.m. 609-341-8480. www.delorenzostomatopies.com.
The Tomato Pie
The tomato pie “is pretty indigenous to Trenton,” says Sam Amico, 42, who lives with his wife and young son in Robbinsville.
“Hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza get people to travel a long way. In Trenton, there was a tomato pie place on every other corner. (For) a lot of people from North Jersey or New York, maybe the tomato pie isn’t the same pizza they grew up with, but it’s something they’ve become loyal to and support,” says Amico.
While all tomato pies — except a “southern” quiche-like concoction — are pizzas (which means pies), not all pizzas are tomato pies. The first distinction is the crust. The tomato pie crust needs to be thin yet able to hold up when it comes out of the oven. Tomato pie devotees also like it well done, which means the crust can get a little blackened around the edges.
With both pizza and tomato pie, there are four simple elements — the dough, the oil, the cheese, and the sauce. With pizza, the tomato sauce gets ladled on first, followed by shredded mozzarella and toppings.
But with tomato pie, after a drizzle of olive oil, the cheese goes on and then the sauce — or, more accurately, the crushed tomatoes. It may sound counterintuitive, but it is the essence of the tomato pie.
When the tomato pie comes out of the oven, it sits for a moment and allows diners to admire the aroma and see how beautiful it looks with the sauce and cheese melded together.
The crust yields to a sharp knife and produces slices that keeps their shape rather than droop and threaten to spill on a lap.
And then there is the first bite with the sauce giving that first tang, a bite that says “this is a tomato pie, not mere pizza.”
As devotees will tell you, mere pizza can be good, but tomato pie can be a sublime thing. It is to be enjoyed with friends and family seated around a table that is adorned with a couple of whole pies (tomato pies are generally unavailable by the slice), and where people can be heard mumbling right before the next bite, “Oh, this is such good pie.”
But that’s nothing new; people have been saying that over pizza or tomato pie for millennia.
A Short History of Pie
In his 2005 book, “Pizza: A Slice of Heaven,” author Ed Levine provides a good outline: Pizza has been around since Roman times in the form of a flatbread with one or more toppings that is baked. For hundreds of years it was enjoyed as a peasant food, eventually landing on menus of trattorias and other eateries as they grew in popularity in the mid-to-late 1800s just as Italy was solidifying into a nation from a collection of separate kingdoms.
Naples, a major port city since the Middle Ages, added another contribution to Western civilization at this time when it also became an important place to go for pizza. In his book, Levine says that Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba has been in business there since 1830.
Levine recounts the familiar tale of a visit to Naples in 1889 by King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Savoy. According to the legend, the king and queen asked a pizzaiolo (“pie maker” in Italian) to make three pizzas for them at the royal palace. Presented with the three pies, the queen said she liked the one that looked like the flag of Italy with its white mozzarella cheese, red sauce, and green basil leaves. That pie has been known as pizza Margherita ever since and constitutes as close to a defining moment as pizza can ever hope for.
That event took place one year after the city of Trenton annexed the adjacent Borough of Chambersburg Township. By then, history was already being made by immigrating Italians who were settling in great numbers where they found jobs in northeastern cities, not least being the new Chambersburg section of Trenton.
Among those coming to America as the 19th century gave way to the 20th were those who would turn simple pizza — and Trenton’s tomato pie — into a star of popular food culture in this country.
The star makers — the Papa and DeLorenzo families — are connected by trade and backgrounds. Just as Giuseppe Papa, the original DeLorenzos — Pasquale and Maria — came to Trenton from Naples in early 20th century.
Their sons learned pizza-making skills in the kitchens of Papa’s restaurant, and then — just as Papa had — opened their own businesses.
The DeLorenzo restaurants distinguished themselves by accenting one of the pie-making approaches in their names: the Hamilton Avenue, now Sloan Avenue in Hamilton, shop emphasized pizza (though it sold tomato pies too); the Hudson Street, now Robbinsville, sold only tomato pies.
Tradition & Change
As Trenton’s tomato pie tradition changed, Vincent Amico (no relation to earlier mentioned Amicos) decided to document some of the old pie men and their restaurants. In 2006 he produced “Pie Eyed,” a 30-minute homage to tomato pies and those who made them. The DVD joins a long list of resources on tomato pie. There is a Facebook page dedicated to the tomato pie, where there was a recent discussion on whether use of the “p-word” should be allowed. A quick search via Google produces a seemingly endless trove of books and websites on pizza and a surprising number on tomato pie.
Vince Amico, though, wanted to record the words and experiences of those who were there during the heyday of Trenton tomato pie. A native of North Trenton, he had retired from the healthcare business, having owned the Millhouse nursing home in Trenton, among other endeavors. He started making ice cream and has shops on North Olden Avenue and in Mount Holly, where he lives.
“I was in the healthcare business for 12 years,” he says. “When I sold it I just sat around for a year making ice cream and pie. I wanted to make the perfect pie. Then I said to a friend of mine, ‘Let’s make a movie about the people who make Trenton tomato pies because they’re not going to be here forever.’ And sure enough, they’re not.”
At the end of his movie, Amico makes a point that is echoed by everyone who still makes tomato pies or eats them. It’s important to have fresh ingredients and the skill to put them together and create a tomato pie. But the most important thing is the customer. That may seem painfully obvious to anyone who is in business. But with tomato pie, the connection with Chambersburg and the people and places not there anymore is in full play.
First, there’s an important question. Is there a “best” Trenton tomato pie?
“It’s like rooting for a sports team really,” says Vince Amico. “People get used to a certain pie and that becomes their standard. It really isn’t a function of good or bad. They’re all good pies. Some sauce is different than others. It’s like saying your mother’s sauce is better than others.
“My theory is it really comes down to what you are used to with sauce for pasta. Some people like thin sauce, some like thick. They might both be good, but you choose one or the other because that’s what you’re used to. The people who grew up with this all live in the suburbs, but they have the same allegiance. If you get into a discussion on who has the best pie you can get into a shouting match. People get rabid.”
Nick Azzaro agrees: “I had a guy who drove from Connecticut. Just to get a pizza. Distances, two or three hundred miles just to get a pizza. More than a steak or a lobster tail, for a pizza they go crazy. I had a guy from Chicago take the train and walk to my place when it was in Trenton just for pizza, and to take a picture.”
Tomato pie is one of the few things that is good to eat, and that people identify with a simple way of life that is either going or not there anymore.
As Sam Amico says, “if you look around and see the tomato pie places, there’s a tradition. I’m third generation and I went from being a bus boy to owning my own place. You’re not just selling pizza; you’re selling the family recipes. That’s the common denominator. It’s in you; it’s in your blood.”
As Vince Amico, Trenton’s own pizza documentarian, tesifies, it’s next to impossible to say that one pizza is better than another. It’s a matter of personal best and, as some say, they are all good.
That notwithstanding, we all have our favorites. In addition to our Trenton favorites above, some of our other choices are listed below. Ours may not be yours. We list them along with an invitation to you to post your own favorites at the digital version of this story online at www.princetoninfo.com. We will print the most illuminating comments in a future issue.
Palermo’s Restaurant and Pizzeria I, 674 Route 206 South, Bordentown 08505; 609-298-6771. www.palermostomatopie.com.
Marcello’s Restaurant, 206 Farnsworth Avenue. 609-298-8360. www.ilovemarcellos.com.
Palermo’s Restaurant and Pizzeria III, 1292 Lower Ferry Road, Ewingville 08628; 609-883-0700. www.palermostomatopie.com.
Gennaro’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria, 4613 Nottingham Way, Hamilton 08690; 609-587-4992. www.gennarospizzeria.com.
Brother’s Pizza, 871 Route 33. 609-586-2707. www.brotherspizzaon33.com.
Vito’s Family Pizza Parlor, 1249 Route 33. 609-586-2888.
Nomad Pizza, 10 East Broad Street, Hopewell 08525; 609-651-1974. www.nomadpizzaco.com.
Osteria Procaccini, 4428 Route 27, Kingston 08528- 609-688-0007. www.osteriaprocaccini.com.
Osteria Procaccini, 7 Tree Farm Road, Pennington 08534; 609-303-0625. www.osteriaprocaccini.com.
Vito’s Pizza, 4 North Main Street. 609-737-8520. www.vitos.com.
Conte’s Pizza, 339 Witherspoon, Princeton 08540; 609-921-8041. www.contespizzaandbar.com.
Slice Between, 242 1/2 Nassau Street, Princeton 08540; 609-683-8900. www.slicebetween.com.
Naked Pizza, 180 Nassau Street. 609-924-4700. www.nakedpizza.biz.
Just as the DeLorenzos learned from Papa’s, succeeding generations of pie makers learned at DeLorenzo’s. That tradition endures, yet only a few places still produce the authentic Trenton tomato pie.
To follow the flavor and find your favorite, here is a list of just some of the pie favorites in the U.S. 1 area:
Ricky’s Pizza & Pasta, 1400 Parkway Avenue. 609-530-1888.
Villa Rosa Pizza & Restaurant, 41 Scotch Road. 609-8825-6841.
Original Dominick’s Pizza, 957 Route 33. 609-584-8700. www.trentonstyle.com.
Joey’s Pizza, 1201 Whitehorse. 609-585-3500. www.joeyspizzaofhamilton.com.
Licia’s Pizza Family Restaurant, 1800 Route 33 (Forest Glen Shopping Center). 609-586-4348.
Shank’s Italian Restaurant & Pizza, Route 33. 609-587-5876.
Antimo’s Italian Kitchen, 52 East Broad Street. 609-466-3333. www.antimositaliankitchen.com.
Franco’s Pizzeria, 6 Mercer Street. 609-466-2991.
Nomad Pizza, 10 East Broad Street. 609-651-1974. www.nomadpizzaco.com.
Marco’s Pizza, 2580 Pennington Road. 609-737-0072.
Osteria Procaccini, 7 Tree Farm Road. www.osteriaprocaccini.com.
Cafe Domenico’s Pizza & Restaurant, 2797 Brunswick Pike. 609-434-0266.
Chuckles Pizza and Pasta, 160 Pennington Lawrenceville Road. 609-895-6660. www.chucklesrestaurant.com.
Red Moon Pizza, 160 Mercer Mall. 609-452-1150.
TJ’s Pizza, 2661 Main Street. 609-896-0440.
Conte’s Pizza, 339 Witherspoon. 609-921-8041. www.contespizzaandbar.com.
Iano’s Rosticceria, 86 Nassau Street. 609-924-5515. www.princetonpizza.com.
Massimo’s, 110 Nassau Street. 609-924-0777.
Pizza Star, 301 North Harrison Street. 609-921-7422.
Aljon’s Pizza, 660 Plainsboro Road, Building D-2. 609-275-1119.
Aljon’s Pizza, 64 Princeton-Hightstown Road. 609-799-4915.
Brother’s Pizza, 948 Alexander Road. 609-275-5575.
Magma Pizza, 445 Nassau Park Boulevard, Nassau Park. 609-452-8383. www.magma-pizza.com.
DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies, 2350 Route 33. 609-341-8480. www.delorenzostomatopies.com.
Joey’s of Robbinsville Boardwalk Pizza, 29 Church Street. 609-918-1177.
Papa’s Tomato Pies, 19 Robbinsville-Allentown Road. 609-208-0006. www.papastomatopies.com.
Perfetto’s Pizza, 410 Lalor Street. 609-278-0699.