In the Classic Tomato Pie, Tomatoes are Still on Top

Jersey’s original pizza, the Trenton tomato pie, has left the city but is bubbling big time in the ’burbs.

At Papa’s, cook Antonio Gonzalez spoons chunky plum tomato sauce on a pie.
At Papa’s, cook Antonio Gonzalez spoons chunky plum tomato sauce on a pie.
Photo by Erik Rank

It’s called tomato pie for a simple reason. Cheese and toppings go on the dough first, then are crowned with chunks of plum tomatoes or tomato sauce. Putting the red stuff on top rearranges the taste experience, turning the tomato’s sweetness, acidity and moisture into a sensuous prelude.

Jersey tomato pie dates back just over a century. In 1912, Giuseppe “Joe” Papa, a 17-year-old immigrant from Naples, opened Papa’s Tomato Pies in Trenton’s burgeoning Italian neighborhood of Chambersburg. It is still in business. In fact, it is the oldest continually operating, family-owned pizza restaurant in the country.

But Papa is probably not the most famous name in the annals of Trenton pizza. That would be DeLorenzo. In 1936, the four oldest sons of Pasquale and Maria DeLorenzo opened DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies in Chambersburg. In the early ’50s, the couple’s four youngest sons opened DeLorenzo’s Pizza in the neighborhood.

Today, the pies of Papa’s and the two DeLorenzos endure, but no longer in Trenton.

The exodus began in 2008, when DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies opened a branch in suburban Robbinsville. In 2012, they closed their iconic Chambersburg spot in a corner rowhouse at 530 Hudson Street—the most atmospheric and beloved tomato-pie location of them all, despite having no restroom. The exodus was completed in 2013, when Papa’s decamped to Robbinsville and DeLorenzo’s Pizza moved to Hamilton.

In moving to modern quarters in the suburbs, all three operations gained seating and comfort, as well as a new generation of customers. All three now accept credit cards. But one thing didn’t change: no reservations. So be prepared to wait, especially on weekends.

Nick Azzaro, the 70-year-old owner of Papa’s, treasures a 1948 photograph of himself as a toddler cradled in the strong arms of his grandfather, founder Joe Papa. The link between the two is Nick’s father, Dominik Azzaro, who married Joe Papa’s daughter, Teresa, together carrying on the legacy. When Nick shut down in Trenton, he brought with him to Robbinsville the old baking bricks that had lined the oven at Papa’s longtime home on Chambers Street.

The finished product, a classic Trenton tomato pie, just no longer made in Trenton.

The finished product, a classic Trenton tomato pie, just no longer made in Trenton. Photo by Erik Rank

“I didn’t change a thing,” he says. “It’s like bringing a seasoned frying pan. Those old bricks give off a certain flavor.”

Nick, not wanting to jeopardize his standing as the oldest continuously operating pizzeria, arranged the move so he could close and reopen in four days. Around the same time, he changed his residence from Chambersburg to Hamilton, making sure he bought a house served by Trenton’s water supply.

“The whole thing about making dough,” Nick asserts, “is the water.” By no means do all pizza experts agree. But give Nick credit. Every week, he lugs gallons of Trenton tap water from his home to the restaurant.

“In Trenton,” he asserts, “they use surface water right from the Delaware River, so it doesn’t have all the minerals you find in water taken from the ground.”

Whether it’s the water, the bricks, the ingredients or the artistry, in my visits I found Papa’s pies to have the most satisfying crust, as well as a generous amount of California plum tomato chunks and toppings evenly distributed across the round pie.

The opening of the Robbinsville branch of DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies in 2008 was the project of Sam Amico, 46, whose parents, Gary and Eileen Amico, continued to run Hudson Street until its closing. (Eileen’s father, Chick DeLorenzo, was the leader of the four older brothers who had started the business.) These days, Sam runs the business, with his parents happily pitching in—Eileen seating customers, Gary in the kitchen.

DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies are cut with a knife rather than a roller, making for irregular slices. The nicely crisp crust is thinner than Papa’s, and the chunks of tomato slightly larger, though not as evenly distributed. That means some slices come up short on the defining ingredient.

DeLorenzo’s Pizza also clings to tradition, though a slightly different one. Owner Rick DeLorenzo Jr., son of Rick Sr., one of the four founding younger brothers, began working in the restaurant when he was 13. He’s now 62. “It’s the same sauce we had in Trenton,” he says. “The same ovens. Nothing’s changed.”

The key word there is sauce. Speaking of DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies, Rick says, “They use chunkier tomatoes, and we use sauce. People have their favorites. There’s plenty of business for both of us.”

I found Rick’s pizza to have the thinnest crust, cracker-like, and the edges now and then went past the usual gentle char to actually being burnt.

Papa’s, my favorite for its pizza, was the site last November of a small-business conference led by Atco native Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to President Trump. Nick Azzaro says she was accompanied by a security detail, and that Vice President Mike Pence addressed the group by speakerphone.

Afterwards, Conway took the train back to Washington. Nick says he spoke on the phone with Pence, who thanked him for hosting the meeting and asked him to send a pizza. Nick boxed one up and gave it to the security detail. I asked him if he ever heard from the vice president.

“It’s about a four-hour drive back to Washington,” Nick said with a laugh. “I think the guys ate it in the car.”

Papa’s Tomato Pies: 19 Robbinsville-Allentown Road, Robbinsville, 609-208-0006; DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies: 2350 Route 33, Town Center, 609-341-8480;. DeLorenzo’s Pizza: 147 Sloan Avenue, Hamilton, 609-393-2952.

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