It’s surprising to me how little is written or said about New Jersey and its rich pizza culture save for the periodic accolades one hears from its proud citizenry. It seems that almost no one outside its borders either takes its pizza seriously or really knows much about it. But what I find really amazing is that New Jersey falls right smack in the heart of what is affectionately known as the "Pizza Belt"; the area between Boston and Philadelphia where many Italian immigrants of the late 19th Century initially settled in this country. Vibrant Italian-American neighborhoods formed in industrial centers and cities such as New York, New Haven, CT, and Trenton, NJ, each supplying their own unique variations of pizza. Trenton's sizable Italian neighborhood, Chambersburg, supported numerous first rate pizzerias over the years but has undeservedly been left in the dust with praise usually tossed elsewhere in the Pizza Belt.
I recently did a 2-day road trip throughout New Jersey, accompanied by my niece, Lindsay, and her friends, Jain and Lilly. After gathering opinions online, in print, and in person, we settled on seven places: two on the Jersey shore (Neptune & Bradley Beach), three inland (Freehold & Princeton), and two more in what I would call the aorta of New Jersey pizza, the Chambersburg neighborhood of Trenton. Going into this trip, my expectations of pizza greatness lied in Trenton since some of the earliest examples of American pizza originated from there. Having read about the legendary Trenton pizzerias such as Papa's Tomato Pies (1912), Delorenzo’s (1936), and Joe’s Tomato Pies (1910) with their classic examples of New Jersey tomato pie, I couldn't wait to check it out.
Historically, pizza from NJ is known not as pizza but as tomato pie, no matter what style or what part of the state they come from. Even though it most likely came from Trenton and spread throughout the state, outside of Trenton, it is a less commonly used term today. I believe they’re known as tomato pies because the emphasis, at least historically, is on good bread topped with crushed tomatoes. In fact, in tomato pies where cheese is used, the cheese is usually applied first and then topped with crushed whole plum tomatoes. Tomato pies traditionally having a higher tomato-to-cheese ratio than most pizza found anywhere. Gary Amico, pieman from Delorenzo's (originally from 1936) on Hudson St. says: "The tomatoes go on last…that's why they call it tomato pie.” From my conversations with a few of the Trenton piemakers, such as Dominic Azzaro, great grandson of the founder of Papa’s Tomato Pies (1912), a proper tomato pie uses crushed whole plum tomatoes which are added last.
Most pizzas use a tomato sauce which is usually applied initially and tends to slightly saturate the dough, making it difficult to properly cook the top-side crust in correct proportion to the bottom-side crust. According to Ed Kopczynski, longtime native of Trenton and owner of The Pizza Kitchen in nearby Hamilton Township, pizzeria-style pies have a thicker, denser crust, while tomato pies are thin and have an airy crumb. He further claims that a pizza has a thicker gumline (the area between the toppings and the crust) while a classic tomato pie’s toppings and crust are almost fused.
Here are my thoughts, in order of tasting, of the seven pizzerias we sampled:
Vic’s (Bradley Beach)
Located just blocks from the Jersey shore, Vic’s has a large and far reaching fan base, comprised largely of locals but with many enthusiastic cottagers and regional tourists getting their Vic’s fix while on holiday.
Their pies are most likely made from standard all-purpose flour with a slightly thicker cracker crust and a dusting of cornmeal. Like most cracker crusts, its main purpose seemed to be more as a holder (supporter) of toppings instead of actually tasting like much. This is boring “bread” which adds virtually nothing to the overall product. The crust has a uniform tan bottom suggesting to me that it was probably cooked at a medium high temperature and for a longer period of time than a classic Neapoletan pie. Sweet, generic tomato sauce is applied directly to the dough, unlike a traditional tomato pie which usually uses chunks of whole tomato as a final topper. The cheese is straightforward and nondescript.
This is a good example of tavern/bar pizza, somewhat in the vein of Zaffiro’s (Milwaukee) or Vito & Nick’s (Chicago). Certainly enjoyable but its inspiration comes not from their pizza but its wonderful setting. Like so many places to follow, their space exuded a lot of personality, which seems to have given decades of pleasure to its loyal patrons.
Pete & Elda’s/ Carmen’s (Neptune City)
Don’t forget your 16-lb bowling ball to throw a couple lines the day you decide to go to this place, another Jersey shore establishment. The clientele is straight from the old school with ample blue hairs, union jackets, and pensioners. I could have sworn I saw Archie Bunker seated at the bar. I would describe their pizza as matzoh with mediocre toppings. The defining characteristic of this pizza being it’s amazingly thin, arid-dry crust with absolutely no flavor whatsoever. The crust’s similarities to matzoh cannot be stressed enough. I’d be very surprised if Pete & Elda’s uses any yeast whatsoever in their dough. The bland cheese and sparse, sweet tomato sauce were a complete afterthought and hardly worth noting.
This is lightweight, pound-it style bar pizza without a stitch of pretension; the pizza world’s version of drinking a Bud.
One of the oldest and well known pizza families in New Jersey are the Federici’s from Freehold. In 1921, Frank Federici Sr. (Pop) bought a downtown building where the extended family lived upstairs and ran a billiard hall and simple restaurant downstairs. According to their website, “In what many consider a historic event, Dante (Frank Sr.’s oldest son), Spat (Frank Federici Jr.), and Mom Federici (Frank Sr.’s wife), perfected and introduced the “tomato pie” to New Jersey. Today, that original recipe is our famous thin crust pizza.”
That’s a pretty bold claim since tomato pies were initially being made in Trenton at places like Papa’s Tomato Pies and Joe’s Tomato Pies sometime around 1910! Anyway…
Federici’s makes their pies with an ultra thin (although not as thin as Pete & Elda’s), almost pastry/cracker crust. This is a flaky and flavorless crust. The cheese was inert and tasteless and the sausage unmemorable. I thought the pizzas were oily but not in a good way. (like at Difara’s in Brooklyn, where Dominic Dimarco drizzles a quality oil over the finished product.)
Even though this is Bruce Springsteen’s go-to place, I walked out of there thinking that The Boss should keep directing his energies towards music. Federici’s was a major letdown after the seemingly infinite praise bestowed upon it. It always amazes me how establishments like this, with a longstanding and loyal following guard their pizza secrets like they’re were working on the Manhattan Project (or something).
When I go to a pizzeria, it’s a natural reflex of mine to talk to owners, piemen, or managers and ask very general questions about their pizza...about their ovens, what type of flour, etc. What I’ve found is that true artisans usually derive great joy sharing their passions and knowledge with enthusiasts like myself who pay tribute to their artistry. However, I frequently find that asking relatively benign questions to those that make a product which is what I would deem less than inspirational, are the most protective of their trade secrets. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that fewer people are asking questions about an average product than to those who produce truly great stuff.
…or it might be that they actually have less to share.
I found these thoughts to be consistently true throughout this trip.
Frankie Fed’s (Freehold)
Owned by Frankie Federici (I believe Spat Federici’s grandson). If he thought that he could make a better pie through years of growing up in the Federici family, he was right. Frankie Fed’s was the first pizza so far on this trip where high quality ingredients such as mozzarella, prosciutto, and clams were used in proper proportion to the pie. Frankie Fed’s tasty and crisp cracker crust enhanced these wonderful toppings even though they were a bit on the soupy side. This is a wonderfully enjoyable pizza, clearly superior to Federici’s.
Some places are more than just good pizza and Conte’s is definitely one of them. This place has a great energy from the moment you walk through the front door. It seemed like most of Conte’s patrons were enthusiastic Princeton locals; a mix of students, professors, and an across-the-age-spectrum of townies. An open, VFW style room that has a full length bar across it, Conte’s has the perfect ambiance to promote co-mingling with follow beer and pizza mavens.
Their pizza crust was airy yet crispy, with a chewiness and pliancy. This was the first really good bread that could be enjoyed on its own. The crust was the highlight of the pizza. The toppings (sausage, fresh mushrooms, red pepper) were also first rate and added nicely to the pie since they were, to my taste, in correct proportion to the crust.
This was unquestionably the best tomato pie and best overall experience so far. The combination of great ambiance as well as great pizza made this a special stop.
Delorenzo’s Tomato Pies (on Hudson St. - Chambersburg, Trenton)
When I embark on a tour such as this, my hope is to hit one or maybe two places that create a serious high, pizzerias that make you say "this is what it’s all about”. In the pizza world, few would disagree that pizzerias such as Difara’s (Brooklyn), Pepe’s (New Haven), and Totonno’s (Brooklyn) usually leave one with such feelings in their own unique ways, for reasons well beyond their amazing pizza. And to fall into such places that have such a culinary magic when you least expect it takes this type of excitment to another level.
Delorenzo’s on Hudson St. certainly put me into this heightened state of awareness. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Delorenzo’s is almost totally off the pizza radar (with the exception of some Trentonites and a few serious pizza aficionados). For a pizzeria with its history (opened in 1936 and moved to its current location in 1947) and unquestionably stellar tomato pies, it's not really well known from outside Trenton. I can only come to the conclusion that Delorenzo’s tomato pies have basically escaped the pizza communities praise because of its location. The Chambersburg’s area of industrial Trenton developed into one of the largest Italian neighborhoods in the late 1800’s. For an Italian community this sizable, it would make sense that a unique version of Neapolitan-American pizza would surface. And that would be the tomato pie: pizza with an emphasis on good bread with a bit of cheese, and topped with chunks of whole tomato.
As Chambersburg went into economic decline, so went its pizzerias. Surprisingly, though, a few of these earliest pizzerias like Joe’s Tomato Pies (started in 1910 but unfortunately closed just a few years back), Papa’s Tomato Pies (1912), and Delorenzo’s (Hamilton St. – owned by another branch of the Delorenzo family) have clung on, even though most of its great Italian culture has moved elsewhere.
Delorenzo’s on Hudson St. is sometimes affectionately known by locals as “Chick’s” after Alexander “Chick” De Lorenzo, 84, the founder who still lives upstairs and often times makes the rounds (downstairs), chatting it up with customers. Chick’s son-in-law, Gary Amico, is the present pizzaioli and overseer of operations today.
As far as their pizza, it's clearly superior to anything else I tried in New Jersey. Their crust reminded me a lot of Totonno’s (Coney Island); extra crispy, rigid, and being absolutely wonderfully tasty. The bread was noticeably lighter in weight, a traditional feature of true tomato pie. One of the few pies (besides Conte’s) I tried where the crust was breadlike instead of a simple cracker crust.
Outstanding sausage added to this wonderful crust as did the crushed pieces of whole tomato. An ample amount of tomato chunks were added atop the sparsely but pleasantly proportioned use of mozzarella. This pie represented my perfect preconceived ideas about what a tomato pie was all about, each bite containing a different ratio of glorious mozzarella, tomato, and sausage accompanying in perfect harmony the magnificent crust.
This is a special culinary treat that is rarely matched in the pizza world.
Delorenzo’s Pizza (On Hamilton St - Chambersburg, Trenton)
For those who know and love Delorenzo’s, the question of which one is better always surfaces. I suppose this is the natural evolution of things when a great pizza family has more than one operation making relatively different style pizza. The crust is lighter and thinner in style here than its brethren on Hudson St. and has a more straightforward profile. The cheese is soupier and the tomatoes overly sweet. However, the pies are beautifully constructed with a pleasingly high proportion of tomato to mozzarella.
For me, there isn’t a question that Hudson St. is making better tomato pies. This isn’t meant to suggest that Hamilton is a bad pie, it just isn’t in the league of what is being produced over on Hudson.
Delorenzo’s on Hamilton is another great example of a New Jersey pizzeria with (exciting) energy and a warm, hospitable vibe.
It seems that for every town in New Jersey, there is at least one pizzeria, a place that does its best to create the sort of warm environment its residents are happy to call a home away from home. From the small sampling of places I tried there, each one had its own unique vibe, usually being nothing more than pizza taverns with a pulse. This is a land of 10,000 pizza parlors, each uniquely defining its own space in the New Jersey pizza world, regardless of how good their pizza really is. Unfortunately, I was unable, both in time and stomach space to try a number of other highly touted establishments such as Alfred’s Tomato Pie (Blackwood), Top Road Tavern & Pizza (Trenton), and most disappointingly Papa's Championship Tomato Pies in Chambersburg (1912), the 2nd oldest pizzeria in operation today and third ever opened in this country. Only Lombardi’s in New York along with Joe’s Tomato Pie, also from Chambersburg and now defunct, were older. A revisit to New Jersey with its seemingly endless amount of decent pizza is a certainty.
Below is a link to a beautiful thread at Pizzamaking.com which discusses some of the great tomato pies from the Trenton area as well as attempts at reverse engineering the tomato pie from Delorenzo’s (Hudson St.).
http://www.pizzamaking.com/forum/index. ... 104.0.html
Vic’s Bar & Restaurant
60 Main St.
Bradley Beach, NJ
Pete & Elda’s Bar & Grill/ Carmen’s Pizza
96 Woodland Ave.
Neptune City, NJ
14 E Main St.
831 State Route 33
339 Witherspoon St.
Delorenzo’s Tomato Pies (Hudson St.)
530 Hudson St.
Delorenzo’s Tomato Pies (Hamilton St.)
1007 Hamilton Ave.
Papa’s Tomato Pies
804 Chambers St.
Alfred’s Tomato Pie
9 S. Black Horse Pike
Top Road Tavern & Pizza
1042 Brunswick Ave.