Tomato pie is the region's signature dish
By RICHARD PAWLAK
Philadelphia Daily News
IN CHICAGO, Lou Malnati's serves the city's classic deep-dish pizza. In New Haven, Conn., it's Pepe's or Sally's for a heady white clam pie. Wolfgang Puck's duck-sausage pizza still rules in Los Angeles. And in New York, fuhgeddaboudit, nothing tops the smoky, charred pies from the coal ovens of Lombardi's or Totonno's. But is there a pizza that Philly can call its own?
The brick-oven-baked beauties from Tacconelli's in Port Richmond and Marra's in South Philly are strong contenders, but Philly isn't really a brick-oven pizza town.
One style is uniquely ours.
A hearty, no-nonsense pizza that's as intense as a Trent Cole quarterback sack: Tomato pie.
But the humble tomato pie has multiple personalities. A "bakery-style" version shows up in Italian bakeries across the region, notably in Manayunk, the northwest suburbs and the Far Northeast. It is a large, rectangular baking sheet of hand-rolled, yeasty crust, a rich, thick, chunky tomato sauce and sometimes a light sprinkling of grated cheese on top. Sold at room temperature, it's a staple for hundreds of tailgaters at every Eagles home game.
A tiny sliver of the Northeast along Frankford Avenue is home to a different kind of tomato pie: Round dough topped with slices of mozzarella or provolone (or both), followed by a spicy, garlicky tomato sauce. It emerges from the oven bright red, thin and crispy, with a room-filling fragrance.
And Trenton's version of a tomato pie is practically a religion. They first appeared in 1910, and the recipe remains unchanged: A round, hand-stretched, thin dough topped with a light amount of mozzarella, a judicious smattering of cooked, crushed tomatoes, and a drizzle of olive oil around the crust, baked at very high heat. It produces an impossibly light, slightly smoky, yeasty pie that is among the very best pizzas in the country.
Each style of tomato pie is a throwback to a simpler time. And each style has a story behind it, linking families, traditions and skills passed down through generations.
"Thank God for my mother," said Frank Marchiano, owner of Marchiano's Italian Bakery, in Manayunk. "Her recipes are responsible for our success. My mother, Nunziata, she was from Calabria, and she said that we should start baking some things and sell them to the local bars here in Manayunk."
It was the late '70s and Marchiano was an injured autoworker who needed to support his growing family. He and his wife, Kathy, took his mother's advice and began selling her stuffed breads and spicy oreganata loaves to nearby taverns.
"The stuff was a hit everywhere we went," said Kathy Marchiano, "and soon the neighbors began coming around to my mother-in-law's house."
Word-of-mouth and savory aromas traveled along the snug rowhouses on Umbria Street and soon the Marchianos had a booming "bootleg bakery business," according to Frank Marchiano.
"But my mother was smart," said Marchiano. "She said we should buy the storefront across the street and open a real bakery. We got some financing and we did. Then came the tomato pie."
And that tomato pie has become their top-selling item, with a loyal following. It has been shipped around the world, as far away as Japan and Saudi Arabia (to soldiers in Operation Desert Storm). Before every Sunday Eagles home game, tailgaters begin arriving at 4 and 5 a.m. to pick up the pies.
"It can get a little crazy around here on Sunday," said Marchiano.
The scene is the same at the Conshohocken Italian Bakery on Jones Street in Conshohocken.
"Next to our rolls, it's our most popular item," said Michael Gambone, who runs this family bakery. "It's my father's recipe, from the 'old country,' and I can't tell you how many we sell during football season. Super Bowl Sunday is our biggest day of the year for tomato pie."
Gambone's tomato pie shares similar bloodlines with Marchiano's and another popular version from Norristown's Corropolese Bakery.
All of them have the look and texture of rustic country baking, rich with olive oil and herbs. Gambone tops his version with freshly grated pecorino; Marchiano's and Corropolese's are dusted with grated Parmesan.
The upside-down pizza
When Tony and Dominic Mallamaci moved their South Philly tavern to Mayfair in 1951, they drummed up business by passing out free slices of their unusual cheeseless tomato pie on Frankford Avenue.
Fifty-five years later, Tony's Place serves a pie found only in this neighborhood. The Grey Lodge Public House, across the street and half a block away, serves a similar pie.
"Consistency is the key," said Joe Mallamaci, Tony's son, a second-generation pie-maker. "My father taught me and I taught my son and our head pie man, John Lindell, who has been making our tomato pies for over 30 years! Every day, it's done exactly the same way, and every day John turns out the same thin-crust pie that started the business."
This summer, Mallamaci's son, Joe, opened a second Tony's Place, in Ivyland, Pa., bringing this unique tomato pie to Bucks County.
Broad slices of melted mozzarella hide beneath the bright red sauce now, though some old-time customers still order the traditional cheeseless pie at Tony's. This upside-down version of pizza pairs particularly well with beer, and the lively bar and packed dining rooms here are ample evidence of that.
Mike Scotese grew up eating Tony's tomato pies, and when he opened the Grey Lodge Public House 10 years ago, it was the first bar food he served, homage to his neighbor. Despite expansion of the kitchen and upstairs dining room, the Grey Lodge's pies are still baked in a small pizza oven behind the bar. Scotese and his bartenders layer provolone cheese on a prebaked shell and top it with a thick, garlic-scented sauce. It is the perfect foil for the roster of microbrews for which the bar has become nationally known.
"There's something about our tomato pie," said Scotese, "and I don't pretend to fully understand it, but it is magical. The ingredients and equipment are simple, if not downright primitive, but somehow the combination is really tasty."
The tidy streets of Trenton's Chambersburg section hearken back to a simpler time, when pizzerias were small, family businesses and pizza making was a noble art. In the same way that Pat's and Geno's symbolize cheesesteaks in Philly, Trenton's few remaining tomato-pie houses have remained destination dining spots for pizza fanatics from across the country.
"I don't know if it's an art, but it's definitely a serious craft to make a Trenton tomato pie," said Sam Amico, third-generation pie-maker, and grandson of "Chick" De Lorenzo, who opened the original De Lorenzo's Tomato Pies on Hudson Street in 1936.
"There once were so many tomato-pie places in Chambersburg," said Amico, "the first one was Joe's [in 1910], then Papa's [in 1912], long before my grandfather and his brothers started. Now it's just us, De Lorenzo's on Hamilton [started by Chick's brother Rick in 1947], Papa's, and the Top Road Tavern, and you can tell it's the same basic recipe with slight variations. It's hardly changed at all."
What also hasn't changed is the obvious pride with which each pie-maker offers a version of tomato pie. The tradition keeps them connected to their families, their childhoods, their neighborhoods.
It's our pie.