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What Is Tomato Pie, Anyway?

Philadelphia’s most glorious foodstuff is this thick-crust, no-cheese, sauce-y pizza

Anyone who has done the deep dive into regional American pizza styles knows that the familiar, floppy street slice is just the tip of the iceberg. Charred, clam-studded pies are the name of the game in New Haven, marinara-topped squares run Detroit, chicken and barbecue sauce aberrations rose from California, and in certain corners of the Mid-Atlantic region, tomato pie is king. Baked in rectangular sheet pans and minimally topped with tomato gravy — or baked into crisp rounds that could double as plain old pizza — it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint where this saucy variant was born.

But what is a tomato pie exactly? Certain tomato pies, like the ones popular in Philadelphia bakeries, clearly trace their roots back to Sicily, where thick, rectangular pizzas were topped with chopped tomatoes, anchovies, onions, and oregano — but rarely ever cheese — before sliding into wood-fired ovens. This cheese-free recipe stems from the Southern portion of Italy, where tomatoes and olives are more plentiful than dairy cows. Somehow during its transatlantic journey, Sicilian pizza shed the onions and anchovies and was renamed, Ellis Island–style, "tomato pie."

Many of the best tomato pies are baked in the same ovens — and from the same dough — as the hoagie rolls that hold Philly’s famous sandwiches.

During the turn of the 20th century, Italian immigrants flocked to Philadelphia. According to records from the period, the city was home to 17,000 Italian immigrants in 1900; just 10 years later, that number would more than quadruple, to over 76,000. Those newcomers brought with them the checkered-tablecloth-and-Chianti style of Italian-American cooking that's become the comfort-food norm around these parts, tomato pie included. These days, the dish retains a loyal following in bakeries and pizzerias in Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs, as well as in Northern Delaware and across the river in New Jersey, where it's transformed into a whole other animal.

Scott Wiener, a pizza tour guide and proud owner of a World Record pizza box collection, breaks down the differences. "There's Philly bakery style and then there's Trenton style," he says. "The bakery tomato pie starts with pan-proofed, focaccia-like dough that's topped with a chunky tomato sauce, has little to no cheese, and is served at room temperature." Trenton-style tomato pie, meanwhile, is basically another name for a regional pizza style featuring a thin, crunchy crust that's topped first with cheese, then finished with a lightly crushed tomato.

But South Philadelphia, where most of those 20th-century Italian immigrants settled, claims it's the nation's epicenter of tomato pie, no matter how it's defined. The beauty of Philly-style tomato pie is that many of the best are baked in the same ovens as the hoagie rolls that house the city's best cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches, and sometimes made from the very same dough.

Scenes from Sarcone's Bakery, Philadelphia.

Louis Sarcone is the fifth-generation owner of Sarcone's Bakery, a Ninth Street staple that's been baking steadily since his great-grandfather took over the business back in 1918. Sarcone's is one of a handful of Philly bakeries that have been deep in the tomato pie game since the Taft administration. Its sizable slices of richly sauced tomato pie are served room temperature, with nothing more than a sheet of wax paper and a paper bag. Because Sarcone's functioned as a bakery and not a pizzeria, tomato pie here began as a grab-and-go meal, baked at the beginning of the day and sliced for customers to snack on after picking up their daily loaves — hence why it's traditionally enjoyed at room temperature and not hot out of the oven.

The bakery still uses the same recipe developed by Louis's great-grandmother. In typical nonna fashion, she had a small kitchen in the back of the bakery where she would simmer the gravy (it's always called gravy around these parts), top her round tomato pies, and place them in the bakery's window. But the pie has evolved over the years from that round form into a rectangular affair. "It was basically what people were asking for," Sarcone says of the shape shift. "Most pizza parlors that came to America, they were making the traditional round pie."

Switching to a sheet pan, Sarcone's now makes between 20 and 30 pies a day in a massive hearth oven that measures 600 square feet. There was a time when Sarcone was doing triple that, turning out close to 100 pies on a busy Friday. "Since then, it changes," he says. "People are staying away from gluten, staying away from bread altogether — it changes with the times." Trending carb fads aside, there's something about that rich and almost sugary gravy paired with Sarcone's beautifully light and pliant crust.

"People didn’t know that something could taste so fantastic without cheese."

A few blocks south of Sarcone's, things are changing at another well-loved tomato pie destination, Iannelli's Bakery. The bakery is currently undergoing some serious renovations, but Vincent Iannelli, grandson of the original owner, was happy to share his take on the house specialty. "It's a cheese-less pizza," he says, explaining the bakery's definition about as simply as one can. "And my barber told me it's vegan; he's vegan."

Dating back to 1910, Iannelli's tiny storefront opened with just two items on the menu: bread and tomato pie. And while the menu has expanded over the years, these two originals retain their synergistic relationship. "A lot of places use different ingredients to make dough, but we use the same dough for everything, to make our bread, to make our tomato pie," Iannelli says. He also attributes the popularity of his pie to its simplicity. "Tomato pie became a real staple — it's actually getting more and more popular because a lot of people didn't know what it was [until recently]. They never knew that something could taste so fantastic without cheese."

Scenes from Cacia's Bakery

Bakery slices of tomato pie pop up all over the city, some of which take some serious liberties with the classic formula. Cacia's Bakery in South Philadelphia has a window full of uniquely Philly slices: There are cheesy squares of Sicilian, garlicky white spinach and broccoli slices, and love-it-or-hate it pieces of pizzaz, a South Philly anomaly topped with American cheese, sliced banana peppers, and tomatoes that no one is fully willing to take credit for (but still has plenty of fans). Cacia's tomato pie is smaller than other pies in town, with a thinner crust and more petite serving size. The tangy sauce is spread thickly over a satisfyingly squishy crust that could almost sub in for a slice of Pullman loaf.

What differentiates Trenton-style tomato pie from the Philly version? "We don’t know, we just like yumminess. And this is how we like it."

But heading out of the Philadelphia area, tomato pie undergoes a metamorphosis as it crosses the bridge over to New Jersey. Trenton-style tomato pie is the polar opposite of the Philadelphia version: Whereas Philly's pie is thick and mostly free of cheese, Trenton tomato pie is a thin-crusted affair that inverts the typical pizza's sauce on the bottom, cheese on the top formula.

These days, the Mercer County township of Robbinsville, situated just east of Trenton, is the heart of Jersey tomato pie country, thanks to Papa's and De Lorenzo's — the OGs of Trenton-style tomato pie. They're now located just minutes from each other in Robbinsville, but couldn't be more different.

Papa's is the self-proclaimed oldest tomato pie restaurant (not bakery) in the United States, dating back to 1910. Curiously, Papa's tomato pie is virtually identical to a regular, round pizza. When asked about sets Papa's tomato pie apart from a more traditional pizza, a veteran waitress explains, "It's basically pizza in reverse. It's a little thinner, we use about three-fourths the amount of cheese and the sauce follows on top." Flavor wise, this doesn't make all that much of a difference.

De Lorenzo's, in Robbinsville, NJ

The slickest of all of the tomato pie operations has to be De Lorenzo's, a circa-1936 restaurant that relocated to Robbinsville from Trenton back in 2007. While the locale might be more polished, the cracklingly thin pizza is made using a recipe that's remained untouched for 80 years. It arrives at the table steaming hot and cut into irregular rectangles dotted with more bright, tomatoey sauce than shreds of gooey mozzarella.

But it's in Blackwood, New Jersey — an hour away from Robbinsville but just across the river from Philadelphia — where Holy Tomato, a relative newcomer to the tomato pie scene, speaks to the unexpected and uniquely regional possibilities of the dish. Taking over Alfred's Tomato Pie, a beloved shop, Terri Berkholder, an Oklahoma transplant, and her trio of daughters leased the space and recipe. These days, the shop is outfitted with painted walls, floral tablecloths, and a Trenton-like menu of crisp crusted pies that goes way beyond the austere offerings of the original owners.

When asked about what differentiates tomato pie from pizza, Berkholder explains that what people think of tomato pie in Philadelphia is entirely different than what folks in Jersey envision. "We don't know, we just like yumminess," she says. "And this how we like it, and this is what we do."

Caroline Russock is the editor of Zagat Philadelphia. Past gigs include vetting thousands of recipes for Serious Eats, bartending in rural Sicily, and running a French bistro in San Diego. Maria Young is a freelance photographer based in Philadelphia.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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Cacia's Bakery

1526 West Ritner Street, , PA 19145 (215) 334-1340 Visit Website

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