NJ Vocabulary: What Is a Tomato Pie?

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It shouldn’t be any different, right? It’s the same three ingredients, just in a different order. But just as 1-2-3 isn’t the same as 3-2-1, changing the order changes everything. And there’s something delicious in the special way an authentic Trenton tomato pie is made — which is why it’s our newest NJ vocab word of the week.

Tomato PieNoun. An authentic Naples-style pizza made by layering the cheese over the crust first, with the tomatoes on top.

Example: “What do you want? Pizza or tomato pie? And there is a difference. Yes, there is! Stop looking at me like that!”

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The tomato pie is as delicious as it is controversial. “People up and down the street will tell you what a tomato pie is and isn’t,” said Nick Azzaro, owner of Papa’s Tomato Pies in Robbinsville. “But it’s very simple: for a tomato pie, we put the cheese on first, and the tomatoes on top.”

Azzaro and his family should know; they’ve been making authentic Trenton tomato pie since 1912, with no signs of slowing down. “I should be retired,” said Azzaro. “The only reason I don’t retire is that I enjoy doing it. And everyone still loves it. New Jersey is known for pizza, and tomato pie is the king of pizza.”

Papa’s Tomato Pies has the unique distinction of being the country’s oldest pizza shop…as well as one of the best. It has been voted the No. 1 pizza restaurant in New Jersey by CBS, in addition to No. 18 in the entire country by NBC.

And while Azzaro admits there’s not much difference, flavor-wise, between a pizza and tomato pie, he does, indeed, give the customer what they order.

“If they order a pizza, we put the cheese on the top. If they order a tomato pie, we put the tomatoes on top, but it’s all the same ingredients,” he says.

How did pizza become more popular than tomato pie? The answer: Money.

Bright Lights, Big Abbreviations

The biggest difference between pizza and tomato pie might be the spelling.

“Back in the day, all the shops had ‘Tomato Pie’ written on their walls or on their signs,” said Azzaro. “But in the 1950s, it got more expensive to make the neon signs with the letters. To save money, they shortened the signs from ‘tomato pie’ to ‘pizza.’ It’s just like how ‘car’ and ‘automobile’ are the same thing. It was the same food, but they shortened the word to save money on the signs.”

How and why some places started to make their pies with cheese on the top or bottom is somewhat of a mystery. Azzaro knows how his father made it, and that’s all that matters.

“My father came from Naples where they invented pizza,” said Azzaro. “It was called pomodoro pizza in Italian. Pomodoro means ‘tomato,’ and pizza means ‘pie.’ So pomodora pizza, in English, means ‘tomato pie.’ That’s the name of it.”

The Secret is New Jersey

Tomato Pie

The ingredients may be simple, but the pies are made with love and lot of Jersey magic. Though the restaurant has moved from its Trenton location to Robbinsville, Azzaro still relies on Trenton for the water.

“I use water from Trenton to make the pie, even after we moved to Robbinsville,” said Azzaro. He added, “I bring in water every day from Trenton in five gallon bottles. I even have the old bricks that I had in my old ovens from Trenton. I brought them from the old ovens to the new ovens. Ask your mom about skillets. She’ll keep her old frying pan if it’s a great a frying pan. You can change the stove, but you want your old frying pan. That’s how I am with my bricks.”

Cut the Mustard…or Keep It?

While the traditional tomato pie is the best seller, Azzaro does offer something else you won’t find at Pizza Hut … Mustard Pie.

“They come from all over just to try it,” said Azzaro of this unique creation that mixes mustard in the dough.

“One of my workers told me about mustard pizza. I never heard of it before. I’m not sure where it’s from. It could be a German thing, because Germans use a lot of mustard on pretzels and hot dogs. So we tried it out. We stretch out the dough and put mustard on it, and then you put on the cheese and tomato, just like a regular pie. It’s a different flavor. A lot of people really like it.”

And mustard pie isn’t the only unique spin on tomato pie and pizza that Azzaro has tried.
“Once I put uncooked popcorn kernels on the dough, just to see what would happen,” he said, laughing. “And it popped, just like popcorn. That’s not something we sell. I’m not sure it was very good. I was just experimenting. I’ve been doing this so long that I like to try new things.”

As Seen On TV

Azzaro’s famous pies have landed him in the Pizza Hall of Fame, and thanks to shows like The Cooking Channel’s Pizza Cuz, Papa’s Tomato Pies is now more popular than ever.

“I did a segment on Cooking Cuz three years ago, and they still air it,” said Azzaro. “Every time that airs, we get tourists. I had a girl show up from Australia! She was in New Jersey and she had seen us on TV and so she wanted to try it. When she got back to Australia she took a photo wearing our shirt in front of the Sydney Opera House.”

And even the outdoorsy types trek into the town for the famous pie. “Last week I had people from Alaska,” said Azzaro. “That’s 4,500 miles away. And these people were from the woods, trust me. They go hunting for food. They were woodsmen.”

Philly and New York, You’re Doing It Wrong

Order a tomato pie in Jersey, and you’ll get one as described above — thin crust, cheese, topped with tomatoes. But ask for tomato pie in Philadelphia or New York, and you’ll get tomato sauce on thick Sicilian dough with just a dusting of Romano cheese.

“That’s not tomato pie,” said Azzaro of the upstate New York and Philly style. “That’s something else. I don’t even know what that’s called.”

Sure, there is some debate — some might call it all-out war — on which is the real deal between fans of Trenton tomato pie and those from upstate New York, home of the Utica tomato pie. Both pies were born in the early 1900s. Which came first? If you’re reading this, you already know the answer.

Where to Get One

The best place to get a true Jersey tomato pie is Papa’s Tomato Pie.

As for toppings, Azzaro recommends the sausage. “It’s a sweet sausage, made fresh. It cooks right on the pizza.”

A large pizza is a great deal at just $14. “I’m not in this to gouge people,” said Azzaro. “We have one of the best deals around for pizza.”

Address: 19 Robbinsville Allentown Road, Robbinsville
Hours: 11:30 am to 9 pm, Monday through Saturday and noon to 8 pm on Sunday.
More Info: www.papastomatopies.com/

Improve your Garden State vernacular and learn the New Jersey lexicon with NJ Vocabulary: The Series.

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