A century ago, after crossing the Atlantic, pizza crossed the Hudson and established itself in Trenton as the tomato pie—and you can still get the real deal.
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Compared to every other kind of pizza, Trenton tomato pies are put together backwards. Cheese and toppings go on first. Only then comes the tomato sauce—seasoned, crushed plum tomatoes, to be precise—spooned on with the individual pizzamaker’s signature flair.
It wouldn’t be a true tomato pie if there was tomato sauce in every bite, as in a regular pizza. You don’t want sameness in every bite. You want the tomatoes to have a bit of bulk and gather themselves in little red hillocks on the pie.
“Normally, pizza is coated in cheese, and you take one bite and the cheese all comes off,” says Rick DeLorenzo Jr., who runs DeLorenzo’s Pizza on Hamilton Avenue in Trenton. “With tomato pie, you really taste the tomatoes.”
Nick Azzaro remembers his grandfather, Joe Papa, one of the founding fathers of Trenton pizza, relating a tale that could, in part, account for the nature of the tomato pie. Back in Naples, Azzaro says, “The story was they were making bread, and they put some sliced tomatoes on it, and cooked it, and that was it.”
Papa opened Papa’s Tomato Pies on South Clinton Avenue in 1912, at age 17. He had emigrated from Naples during the prior decade and settled in Trenton in the burgeoning Italian neighborhood of Chambersburg. Before launching his own restaurant, he worked at Joe’s Tomato Pies. Joe’s opened in 1910 and is regarded as the second pizzeria established in America after Lombardi’s, which opened on Spring Street in Manhattan in 1905.
Joe’s shut down about twenty years ago, but Papa’s is still around—now at 804 Chambers Street—and is run by Azzaro, 62, and his son Dominic (“Donnie”).
Food writer Ed Levine, in his book, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, called Trenton “one of the oldest notches on the Pizza Belt,” which in his estimation runs from Boston to Philadelphia.
Trenton did not earn that distinction just on the strength of Joe’s and Papa’s. In fact, if there is one name synonymous with Trenton pizza—specifically, tomato pie—it is DeLorenzo. The reason might be strength in numbers. Four Trenton-area restaurants bear the DeLorenzo name.
Like Joe Papa, Pasquale and Maria DeLorenzo immigrated from Naples to America at the start of the last century. The family grew to eight sons and four daughters, living in a rowhouse on the corner of Mott and Hudson streets.
Pasquale was a barber, not a pizza maker, but in 1936 he helped his four oldest sons—Joe, Chick, Jimmy, and Johnny—open DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies in the bottom floor of the aforementioned rowhouse. In 1947, Chick, by then the spearhead, moved the restaurant to a narrow rowhouse at 530 Hudson Street, where it remains today. In 2008, Chick’s grandson, Sam Amico, 38, opened an airy, modern DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies at 2350 Highway 33 in suburban Robbinsville.
But that accounts for only half the DeLorenzo clan. In the early 1950s, Pasquale and Maria’s four younger sons—Ricky, Pat, John, and Ray—went into business for themselves, opening DeLorenzo’s Pizza, now located at 1007 Hamilton Avenue. Last July, Rick Jr. opened a branch in Risoldi’s Market in Mercerville.
Rick Jr. attributes the original split to the tight quarters the family lived in, noting, “in Italian families there are always periods when you are not talking.” But like other family members, he insists there’s no bad blood between the two branches.
“It’s not like we’re the Hatfields and McCoys,” he says. “It’s a friendly rivalry. You’ve got your fans of Hudson Street and your fans of Hamilton Avenue. To each his own.”
Fans will argue that DeLorenzo’s Pizza makes a thinner and crispier crust, while DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies makes a chunkier sauce. The two DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies restaurants serve whole pies cut into square-to-rectangular slices with a knife, not a pizza roller. Papa’s and DeLorenzo’s Pizza make traditional round pies. Only the Mercerville location sells slice.
But probably the difference most often cited is the restroom facilities, or lack thereof. DeLorenzo’s Pizza has a bathroom for customers; DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies on Hudson Street does not. When Hudson Street first opened, restaurants were not required to have restrooms. (Employees, and a few select customers, use the rowhouse’s second-floor bathroom.)
“They’ve been coming so long, they know the rules,” says Gary Amico, who runs Hudson Street with his wife, Eileen, Chick DeLorenzo’s daughter. “They can bring their own beer, but don’t drink too much because we don’t have a bathroom.”
Rick Jr., 54, of DeLorenzo’s Pizza, has mixed feelings about the restroom distinction. “I resent the fact that people call up and say, ‘You’re the DeLorenzo’s with a bathroom,’” he says. “Is that what we’re known for? I’d rather they said we’re the ones with the better pizza or the friendlier service.”
At one time, Chambersburg (“The ’Burg,” in local parlance) had as many as a dozen tomato pie establishments. “Everyone had neon signs that vertically spelled out T-O-M-A-T-O-P-I-E-S,” says Azzaro. “Then neon got expensive, so to be more economical, they started calling it pizza.” The plenitude of pies, plus numerous bars and nightclubs, made Trenton a popular stop for sports and musical celebrities travelling between New York and Philadelphia in the 1950s and ’60s. Lining the walls at Papa’s and the two DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies are photos of stars (some who have eaten at the restaurants)—Jimmy Durante, Louis Prima, Keely Smith, Joe DiMaggio, and Vic Damone, to name a few.
Azzaro, 62, remembers when his restaurant would stay open until 3 am. “After the bars closed, they’d come here for tomato pies,” he says. “We had a jukebox, and they’d be dancing in the aisles. We didn’t serve lunch because I’d be here till 3:30 am. Some places did breakfast and lunch. We did dinner and craziness.” Over the past fifteen years, he has gradually changed the hours to 4 to 9 pm, seven days a week. “Life means more to me than making a lot of money,” he says.
Outside Trenton, the term tomato pie is little known. “If you go to North Jersey, they don’t even know what it is—they might give you a regular pie, with tomatoes in it instead of apples,” jokes Giulio Padalino, co-owner of Palermo’s in Bordentown. Padalino jokes that when he opened his first tomato pie restaurant twenty years ago, he initally had to “force” customers to try them.
Few other cities have adopted the formula. Utica, New York, and Norristown, Pennsylvania, have their own versions. In New Haven, the menu of the famous Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana on Wooster Street describes the product as tomato pie.
In Jersey, Trenton’s tentacles have reached other towns. Tony’s in Long Branch was started by the husband of one of Joe Papa’s sisters. Anthony Mack and Vincent Manco grew up in Trenton, where they absorbed tomato pie culture before starting their three Mack and Manco pizzerias in Ocean City (see story, page 44).
In 1950, asserts Nick Azzaro, Papa’s became one of the first pizzerias in New Jersey to deliver. The pies would be wrapped in newspaper, and Jimmy Giannini would make the rounds in his 1946 Dodge.
Today, Papa’s is considered the country’s second oldest continually operating pizzeria. As one of Chambersburg’s earliest businessmen, Joe Papa served as chairman of the annual Feast of Lights street festival for many years and president of the Neapolitan Hall.
While DeLorenzo’s on Hudson Street remains pretty much the same as always—cedar paneling, a 1950s push-button cash register, the male-only kitchen staff—everything around it has changed. The ’Burg is now home to Trenton’s largest Latino community. Most of the Italian restaurants and corner stores have been replaced by Spanish or Mexican restaurants, which is why the opening of the DeLorenzo’s Robbinsville branch stoked panicked speculation that Hudson Street was about to bite the dust. After cutting back to a Thursday-to-Sunday evening schedule, Eileen Amico, 65, says Hudson Street is operating on a “month-to-month basis.”
But while the neighborhood might have changed, Trenton’s remaining pie makers agree there is little chance tomato pies will disappear. At Papa’s, Azzaro’s 39-year-old son, Donnie, spends most of his days making tomato pies. Sam Amico’s son, Lorenzo, is only 6, but he’s already declared he wants to “be a pro baseball player or work with his dad,” according to grandma Eileen. Rick DeLorenzo Jr.’s son, Michael, 29, is being groomed to take over DeLorenzo’s Pizza. Rick’s daughters, Melissa and Maria, both work at the Hamilton Street restaurant, but one aspires to be a ballerina while the other says she wants to be a mortician.
Like his father before him, DeLorenzo Jr. encourages his kids to spread their wings. But, he notes, “If it doesn’t work out for them, they have a future right here.”
Contributing writer Jill P. Capuzzo reviews restaurants for New Jersey Monthly and teaches journalism at Rutgers/Camden.
Click on the links below to read more pizza stories from our dining issue:
25 Perfect Pizzas
Celebrity Pizza Picks
Picking the Perfect Pizza Wine
Searching for the Soul of Jersey Pizza
Alchemist & Barrister
AC's New Parrothead Perch
Beware of Sticky Fingers: Customers Help Themselves to Food, and More
After Hours at the CHEGG
On The Waterfront: Shore Dining With A View