New Jersey has the best pizza in the country. This is canon. With the state’s large variety of styles, NJ cemented itself within the pizza hall of fame long ago. However, one style hailing from the greater Trenton area differs from the rest. The Trenton Tomato Pie is Central Jersey’s biggest kept secret.
What Is a Tomato Pie?
Well, it depends on who you’re asking. Philly natives will describe it as something similar to a Sfincione— a square, focaccia-like pizza topped with tomatoes, salt and extra virgin olive oil served cold. In New England, you’ll get more-or-less the same with slight variation. In Trenton, the answer could not be further from that. Trenton tomato pie marries styles together. It is a culmination of pizza excellence, and the locals wouldn’t have it any other way. Round, thin and crisp dough is sprinkled with cheese and toppings first before being splattered with the highest quality crushed tomatoes, like Jackson Pollock flailing his paintbrush at a canvas on the floor. For over 100 years, this abstract, tomato-forward pizza has maintained its cult following.
Papa’s Tomato Pies – photo by @foodiejerseygirl
The History of the Trenton Tomato Pie
It all started around the turn of the 20th century with Joe’s Tomato Pies on South Clinton Ave in Trenton. Along with being the first establishment to dish out the tomato pie, Joe’s is significant because of one young man who spent time working there. Giuseppe “Joe” Papa immigrated to the US from Naples, Italy and began making pies at Joe’s when he was just 15 years old. Two years later, at the young age of 17, Papa opened Papa’s Tomato Pies in 1912— thus beginning the legendary story of the Trenton tomato pie as we know it today.
110 years have passed by, and Papa’s remains operational— making it the oldest family-owned and continually run pizzeria in the country. Originally housed on Butler street in Trenton, Papa’s moved to Chamber’s Street in 1945 where Papa’s son-in-law, Domink “Abie” Azzaro eventually took over the operation with his wife and Papa’s daughter, Teresa Papa. They dished out tomato pies from this location for nearly 70 years. In 2013 the restaurant moved just outside of Trenton to the quaint and unassuming Robbinsville, NJ where they are still located to this day— owned and operated by Abie and Teresa’s son, Nick Azzaro.
Moving to the Suburbs
So, what prompted the move to the suburbs in 2013? A plethora of reasons went into the decision-making, I’m sure, but what seems to have been a driving force for the move was a rival shop doing it first.
Alexander “Chick” De Lorenzo opened De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pies on Hudson Street in Trenton in 1947. Alongside his wife, Sophie, the couple operated the pizzeria for nearly 40 years before retiring and handing it off to their daughter, Eileen Amico, and grandson, Sam Amico. Like Papa’s before it, DeLorenzo’s is an institution. It is a place for regulars to come and enjoy the tomato pie they grew up on, or for pizza aficionados across the globe to come and try a slice of history.
While still making tomato pies in Trenton, Sam Amico opened a Robbinsville location in 2007, expanding the reach of the tomato pie into the suburbs. It was no longer a commodity only obtained by traveling into Trenton. When Sam’s parents decided to retire in 2012, the Trenton location retired along with them.
In the Trenton area, you are either a Papa’s family, or a De Lorenzo’s family. Food rivalries like this are anything but abnormal in New Jersey. Rutt’s Hut versus Hot Grill and White Mana versus White Manna are other examples of such. These clashes are the result of a natural competitive attitude that seems to be intertwined throughout the DNA of everyone who spends even a lick of time in the Garden State. A competitive nature that attracts two foes to one another. But what these rivalries also present is two masters of their craft dishing it out to create something even greater than the sum of their parts; a story.
That is why less than a year after the original De Lorenzo’s closed in Trenton, Papa’s followed them to Robbinsville, because what is either establishment without the other?
Papa’s and De Lorenzo’s remain busy and beloved. The tomato pies differ slightly, with each uniquely intricate quirk being the reason for someone’s preference. At DeLorenzo’s, the tomato pie is rich and, well, tomato-forward. The crust is on the verge of being well-done, sprinkled with bubbles of charred dough. The slices are abstract and uneven. To many, the asperous slices are alluring making for a vastly different experience with each slice.
At Papa’s you get a similarly indulgent pie in regards to the cheese and tomato, with a crisp, albeit lighter cook on the crust. The slices are cut in the classic style. But perhaps the most famous thing Papa’s does, the mustard pie, is the source for much of Papa’s acclaim. Pizza dough is stretched out and covered with a thin layer of, yes, spicy brown mustard before being topped with cheese, tomatoes and, oftentimes, sausage. This strange pizza has gained cult status. And though it sounds weird, maybe even unappetizing, the mustard pie is a must-try for anyone who is serious about their love for all things pizza.
The truth of the matter is that it’s subjective. Mustard pie fans are always going to drift toward Papa’s, and fans of a more well-done pie might take refuge at De Lorenzo’s. There is no wrong answer. Tomato pie is a story first, and a pizza second. It represents the terroir of the Garden State’s capital. The luscious cheese and the dollops of tomato serve as a history lesson into Mercer County, where so much of our great state’s records have been written. Decades of rivalry and pizza excellence have led us to this moment.
The tale of the Trenton tomato pie dates back 100 years, being passed down from generation to generation. And though nothing is for certain, if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Papa’s and De Lorenzo’s dishing it out 100 years from now. Just as they always have.