Gut Instinct: Papa’s Knows Best

Written by Joshua M. Bernstein on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.


AFTER AN EXHAUSTING weekend spent exploring the power of whiskey and one-dollar bills during my Philadelphia bachelor party, the last thing I wanted to do was spend Sunday afternoon shoving my face into a hot, oozy pie.

“I think we need to get you a tomato pie,” my friend Will said, knee-steering our car from the City of Brotherly Love at a speed that Indianapolis 500 aficionados would appreciate. “It’s what you eat in Trenton, New Jersey.” He grabbed his BlackBerry and clacked a query into Google. The results unfurled instantly. Phone calls were made as Will rocketed down the interstate. “Are you open?” he inquired of Papa’s Tomato Pies. A pause. “Beautiful,” Will said in his honeyed lawyer voice, ordering a large pie. “We’ll be there in 15 minutes to pick it up.” He killed the call. Then he sped up, Trenton’s skyline approaching as quickly as a camera’s zoom lens.

Perhaps I should pause to explain. A tomato pie is not a savory summertime treat. It’s pizza. Then again, it’s pizza in reverse. To create a Trenton tomato pie, the ripe red berries of the nightshade family are crushed, not turned into sauce. A thin crust is topped with olive oil and a smattering of cheese, and then the chunky tomatoes and a finishing oily drizzle. Finally, the pie is cooked till it’s as crunchy as a Saltine cracker.

In Trenton, the major practitioners are De Lorenzo’s and Papa’s Tomato Pies (804 Chambers St., at Roebling Ave., papastomatopies.com). Since it was Father’s Day, it was only fitting that we chose this paternal restaurant, opened by founder Joe Papa in 1912. Nearly a century later, Papa’s is America’s oldest family-owned pizza restaurant (a distinction that separates it from Lombardi’s Pizza, which was founded in 1905). Today, Papa’s looked every one of its 99 years. A vacant adjoining storefront had a taped-on arrow pointing to a door to the right, which was outfitted with a stained glass “P.” Yellowing tape held together the awning, featuring a cartoony, mustachioed Italian chef.

Looks can be deceiving. Inside, vintage lights hung from the ceiling over wooden booths, and the walls were covered with photo collages of contented customers. We walked to the cash register and seized our pie, eager to return to the road. “Are you sure you don’t want to eat here?” asked Nick Azzaro, the family’s third generation of pizza makers, who runs the restaurant with son Dominic. “What’s the rush?” I wanted to explain my hangover, how my head felt as it were filled with fighting feral squirrels. In short, I wanted to be in bed. “Sure, let’s eat it here,” Will said, before I could protest. The box was whisked to the kitchen. We slid into a booth. The pie was placed before us on a round metal sheet. The circular feast was a mosaic of vibrant red and blistered white, the edges cooked as dark as a Caribbean tan. I bit my slice. The crust crunched as if it were a kettlecooked chip, the textural tomatoes’ natural sweetness singing louder than the creamy mozzarella—a contrast to the average New York slice, where the sauce often plays second fiddle to cheese.

Azzaro, who looked a bit like Harvey Keitel wearing Christopher Lloyd’s Back to the Future hair, abandoned the kitchen to observe. “What do you think?” he asked. Singular. Delicious. A different kind of pie altogether. Azzaro took the accolades in smiling stride. Then we came back with our question: What’s the difference between a tomato pie and a pizza? It’s a matter of cost, Azzaro explained. Used to be, every Trenton establishment slinging tomato pies had a vertical neon sign that announced the specialty. Then neon grew more expensive. Since sign makers charged by the letter, cost-conscious owners opted for the more succinct “pizza.”

To me, there’s still a distinction between a pizza and a pie. In lieu of pillowy dough, a cheesy blanket and a bedspread of zingy tomato, you have purer expression of its ingredients. The result is a regional delicacy good enough to make you—or was that me?—forget about a hammering hangover. 

EVER HAD A TRENTON TOMATO PIE? TELL ME AT JBERNSTEIN@NYPRESS.COM. FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER @JOSHMBERNSTEIN.

..