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Touring Trenton

June 9, 2014

Tomato Pie is a funny thing. For most people it probably conjures an image of a tomato sauce covered piece of focaccia. And that’s not wrong. Perreca’s in Schenectady makes a tomato pie like this that’s a regional delight.

Trenton Tomato Pie is entirely different. It’s more like pizza, but there is cheese on the bottom. Which is not the same as cheese-on-the-bottom pizza, because Trenton Tomato Pie is certainly not that either. COB buries a layer of cheese under a layer of tomato sauce making it almost like a Chicago Deep Dish without the second layer of crust.

In the case of this central New Jersey classic, the cheese and generous spoonfuls of glorious New Jersey tomatoes are intertwined. There is cheese on the bottom only in an attempt to protect the thin crust from the weight and moisture of the tomatoes, but there is plenty of burnished cheese on top to crank up the flavor of these pies.

I’ve been sampling a few of them here and there, including a head-to-head of Papa’s and DeLorenzo’s. But I had yet to widely try what’s available in the towns around Trenton that pay homage to this Chambersburg specialty.

That all changed on Sunday.

Albany Jane made the trek down from upstate New York with Jon in Albany. Three adults, two pizza-loving kids, and Young Master Fussy (who couldn’t care less about pizza) tried to see how much we could eat in six hours. There was no way to make all ten places I wanted to sample, but at the very least I was looking forward to getting a wider sense of what a Trenton Tomato Pie could be. And in that regard, I think we succeeded.

Stop One: Gennaro’s

Gennaro’s doesn’t come up on the big searches for Tomato Pies in the region, but I found Hidden Trenton and respected their love for the place. They put it in a tie for third right behind Papa’s and DeLorenzo’s. That’s a mighty fine recommendation.

And this was a great place to introduce Jon to the stylistic underpinnings of the form. It’s a very thin crust with beautifully caramelized cheese, and plenty of sweet aromatic clumps of tomato. While the crust and cheese are important in these pies, they are really all about the red stuff. And the tomatoes at Gennaro’s were magnificent. It was a chunky sauce that was barely cooked. Some might squint at the seeds and errant piece of tomato skin, but there was no arguing on the flavor, enhanced by just a touch of fresh basil. The sweet tomato flavor was balanced with good acidity and mellowed by the fat of the cheese and a splash of olive oil.

It was a great pie. The one drawback was its bottom crust which just didn’t get quite crisp enough to give the pie good structure.

As an added bonus, it happens to be right next door to a Halo Pub. Jon in Albany had been excited to try this place after hearing me rave for months about how much I love their ice cream. Pizza and ice cream are a marriage made in heaven, and Young Master Fussy was pleased to get some mint cookies and cream into his belly after skipping out on the first slice.

Stop Two: Papa’s

This shop was really the impetus for getting Albany Jane back down to Trenton. On our first visit we noticed their Mustard Pie, and each of us independently imagined how nice that would likely be with anchovies. She forbid me from trying it without her. So I promised I would wait. And wait I did.

But we had to get Jon a regular tomato pie too so he could see what the place was all about. Plus we were curious what the mustard pie would taste like without a funky, fishy and salty component. Also the kids were hankering for some sausage.

Our order was a large tomato pie (with sausage on half) and one large mustard pie (with anchovy on half).

You have to really love brown mustard and salt to enjoy a mustard pie. And if you are going to eat one with anchovies, eat it last because the intensity of the flavors and salt will make anything else you eat afterwards taste bland. It’s one heck of an experience. I’m glad that we did it. But it’s clearly not for everyone. Still, kudos to Papa’s for keeping this unusual regional variant alive and well.

Here’s my confession. As much as Trenton Tomato Pie is all about the tomatoes, I’m all about the crust. And the Papa’s won the day for crisp bottom crust supremacy. Now, it did that at the cost of thickness, coming in at the thickest of the places we tried. Still, this is a thin crust pizza. Sure, the tomatoes were more cooked down and strained. It gave them a deep savory flavor, but they were missing that great brightness. That means the dominant flavor profile came from the nicely toasted crust and the gorgeous crust and cheese bubbles, one of which I was able to score.

The loose sausage (tossed onto the pies raw and cooked in the oven) is fantastic too.

Stop Three: Corleone’s

Jon in Albany turned me on to Pizza Town USA and their amazing deep fried calzone. So when I heard about this joint in Trenton that had both Trenton Tomato Pie and deep fried calzones, I was compelled to give it a go. However, I did not want to go alone and do that kind of damage to my body. Also, everything comes with a complimentary order of zeppoles. I guess if you’ve got the oil and the dough, why not?

This may have been the spot that pushed the tour over the edge.

Not to throw Albany Jane under the bus or anything, but she ordered wrong. So after getting a regular cheese pizza, we also had to order an actual Trenton Tomato Pie. That’s two large pizzas, and one small deep fried calzone.

That small deep fried calzone was a monster. It was at least twice the size of the one from Pizza Town USA, but the insides were not nearly as molten. That was actually a very good thing, because it meant I was able to cut it into pieces easily for sharing among the group without burning off my skin with hot liquid cheese.

It was also the best of the four things we ate at Corleone’s, so I’m really glad we got it.

The Trenton Tomato Pie was fine, but nothing spectacular. It wasn’t bad, but all elements really failed to stand out. The tomatoes weren’t as good as Gennaro’s and the bottom crust wasn’t as good as Papa’s. That said, Albany Jane did really enjoy the flavor of this crust and thought its cracker-like taste reminded her the most of the pie we had at DeLorenzo’s on her last visit. And it’s true, but the thing I love about the DeLorenzo’s crust is its char and its remarkable crispness, even at the center of the pie.

Taking a Breather

After three stops, I was still fantasizing about making three more. As I mentioned, there are just so many notable shops and I wanted to try as many as possible. But we needed something refreshing to cut all that salt and fat. And I knew just the thing.

The Yardley Ice House is just across the river in Pennsylvania and has the best Italian Ice I’ve tried in the region. So far, their chocolate chocolate chip is my favorite. It takes a little getting used to the chips in an Italian Ice, but the chocolate ice part really takes me back to my childhood. Theirs has a great deep cocoa flavor, which is harder to find than one might think.

Stop Four: La Villa

We were already on the Pennsylvania side of the river, and I really wanted to see what a more modern take on the Trenton classic would taste like. La Villa was not locked into almost a hundred years of tradition when the chef there created their Chambersburg-style tomato pie. Plus Hidden Trenton was saying great things about this place too.

I’m no sucker for convention. The square form would be fine. Except the bottom crust had no crispness at all, and instead was remarkably chewy. And while this is supposed to be a carb loaded expression of tomatoes, at La Villa the dominant first impression from the pie was garlic.

It’s not that this wasn’t a tasty specimen, but Jon in Albany commented that he felt this was different enough that it felt like it was out of the boundaries of Trenton Tomato Pie.

As much as I wanted to swing by Mamma Rosa’s or call in a pie at DeLorenzo’s and eat it in the parking lot, everyone was finally stuffed and the upstate New York contingent had to hit the road. After all, there were kids involved and they had school the next day.

The experience was fantastic. I’m thrilled to have eaten pizza with Jon who is a pizza obsessive and AJ who was my former pizza judging companion for the AOA TOP. Hopefully, one of them will have pictures on their blog. I’m looking forward to getting out to Trenton and trying a few others while the taste memory of these pies is still fresh in my mind.

Palermo’s, Joey’s, Danny’s, and Mamma Rosa’s are at the top of my list. But there are others too. I may even have to go back to Gennaro’s and see what happens if you ask for a tomato pie well done. Maybe that’s the secret.

If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2014 12:34 am

    We had a great time. The kids were very excited to tell their mother all about the trip at dinner tonight. Thanks for hosting this adventure.

  2. June 14, 2014 12:30 am

    This was such a fantastic day. I think we also owe props to our spouses for indulging (heh) this particular day of gluttony we were able to share.


  1. The Tomato Pie Tour | Albany Eats!

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