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Yo! Trenton Has a Tradition--It's Called Tomato Pie

June 20, 1991|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The most famous moment in the history of Trenton, N.J., can be directly attributed to an overindulgence of food and grog.

A garrison of British soldiers and German mercenaries occupied the town on Christmas night, 1776. Gen. George Washington, betting the Europeans would celebrate the holiday to excess, launched a surprise attack after his famous crossing of the Delaware River. The drunken British-led contingent was easily routed.

This has been proudly labeled the "turning point of the Revolutionary War," and it has been taught to schoolchildren ever since. It is a history lesson that makes an impression: One Trenton native--Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf--went on to duplicate Washington's surprise tactics in the Persian Gulf.

Between Washington's triumph and Schwarzkopf's graduation from Trenton Central High School, the city also developed an international reputation for fine china and ceramics. It is the birthplace of Lennox, Boehm and Cybis.

And then there is the pizza. Trenton may be the capital of New Jersey, but like all the other small cities of the Northeast, it has recently undergone an economic struggle. The ethnic neighborhoods that once prospered are now fading. But one section of town--Chambersberg--has remained a vibrant Italian enclave. And from Chambersberg--a maze of row houses, churches, one-way streets and cement playgrounds--comes maybe the best thin-crust pizza in the country.

The pizza, known in this area as tomato pie , is wonderful in its simplicity: super-thin crust, fresh cheese and a thick, flavorful tomato sauce lightly spiced with basil. The misguided order extra cheese in order to approximate traditional pizza.

In Trenton, the difference between pizza and tomato pie is more than semantics. The issue is seriously debated everywhere, from the neighborhood taverns to the local newspapers' annual polls of whose pie is best. In the heart of Chambersberg, out-of-towners are immediately spotted when they ask for a pizza.

In a technical sense, a Trenton tomato pie is distinguished from pizza by the sequence in which the primary toppings are placed on the super-thin dough. After preparing and tossing the dough to achieve the desired base, the cook puts a smattering of cheese directly on the dough and then both dough and cheese are covered with sauce, allowing for a proper border so that edges of the crust can puff. The result is an ideal mingling of ingredients, with the melted cheese anchored by the sauce and less likely to slide off the pie than with a conventional pizza. Pizza makers in the rest of the country do it in the opposite order: sauce first, then cheese.

The crust is also crucial. One veteran pie maker says that preparing the dough very thin allows it to crisp and become a bit more firm so that it is easier to handle and savor.

Joe's Tomato Pie Restaurant, founded in 1910, is famous for both its pie--recently named best in the county by the local newspaper--and the fact that it may be the only drive-in pizza outlet in the United States.

"Because we don't deliver, the drive-up window is a convenience for our customers," says Peter Silvestro, 33, the fourth generation of his family to make pies at the South Clinton Street location. "The concept, begun about 30 years ago, is real popular. On a Friday night there is always a line of 10 to 12 cars, just like people at the bank waiting to cash their paycheck."

Silvestro says his dough recipe has been in the family for 80 years and that the tomatoes for the sauce are custom-crushed in California.

"I don't do anything harsh to the sauce unless a customer asks for it," he says. "We use only basil. We don't go heavy with garlic unless they ask.

"Tomato pie is different because of the thin crust, the mozzarella on the bottom and the tomatoes on top," Silvestro continues. "We've all done the same thing that has been passed down to us through the years. I have to be consistent with what my father did and with what his father did. If I changed the pies, no one would come back."

Michael Bucci has been making pies for more than two decades, the last 15 years at Jo Jo's Tavern on Hamilton Avenue. His contribution to Trenton pie artistry is the elimination of mozzarella and the use of a blend of mild Cheddar cheeses.

"Cheddar and mozzarella melt two different ways," Bucci says. "If I put the Cheddar on top of the sauce, then it would slide off. The tomato cuts it and keeps it in place."

"I've made tomato pies for 22 years and I can't tell you why we started using Cheddar instead of mozzarella. I never knew why. It's just what I learned as a kid," he says. "And it is different from everyone else's in town."

Joan Belknap, a local food writer, believes that Trenton's strong tomato pie tradition began when Italian housewives would bring their home-made sauce to the neighborhood bakery and ask the baker to make a pie for them. At the time, most of the row houses had poorly equipped kitchens. If there was a stove at all, it was usually on the back porch.

"These working people did not have anything in the way of kitchens, which were just not designed for cooking," Belknap says. "So the women went to the bakery or the local bar to have something special cooked."

Belknap says the Trenton area is also known for its fine sausages, which certainly helps with the reputation of the tomato pie toppings.

"I don't know if I have ever eaten better pizza," Belknap says. "Trenton does have the best."

The concept of tomato pies is not as distant from the area's George Washington lore as it would initially seem.

Silvestro, of Joe's Tomato Pies, said that in the old days--before the availability of cardboard boxes--the tomato pies were wrapped up for take-out in newspapers, the resulting package took on a rather special design.

"The finished wrapping was shaped like George Washington's tri-cornered hat," he says. "And it came with a handle."

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