Rick DeLorenzo, Sr. came out of a decade long retirement to work on the last day at DeLorenzo’s Pizza’s location on Hamilton Avenue. (Photos by Suzette J. Lucas.)

After earning fame and fanatics in Trenton, DeLorenzo’s Pizza starts a new chapter in the suburbs

Rick DeLorenzo, Jr. slid into an orange booth by the kitchen, ate a few slices of plain tomato pie and considered the space where he sat.

He had been busy the last half year as people swarmed his business, aching to get there while they still could. They had little time left to experience DeLorenzo’s Pizza at Hamilton Avenue—take in its photos of celebrities hung neatly on wood-paneled walls, hear instrumental versions of “Phantom of the Opera” and other classics softly piped into the dining room, watch employees expertly operate the cash-only register that was older than many of them. They’d do it all while noshing on crispy, thin-crust Trenton tomato pie cooked so the slices could defy gravity. The pieces could stand by themselves, without any support.

DeLorenzo hadn’t had a second to soak it in himself, and time had nearly run out. In two weeks, on April 13, this place—the longtime home of DeLorenzo’s Pizza in Trenton—would close. In late April or early May, a new, larger location on Sloan Avenue in Hamilton was scheduled to open, with longer hours and a slightly larger menu. DeLorenzo said he was aiming to be ready by the second week in May.

The past few months, DeLorenzo heard again and again what a shame it was he chose to leave the city that had made his family and its pizza quasi-celebrities. The closing marked the end of a 52-year stretch at 1007 Hamilton Ave. that saw the restaurant soar to regional—and perhaps even international—prominence.

The truth is, DeLorenzo didn’t really want to leave. The 57-year old spent most of his life working at Hamilton Avenue, and what the location lacked in amenities or atmosphere, it made up for it in nostalgia, in utility, in consistency.

But the growing fear that Trenton simply wasn’t safe forced DeLorenzo’s hand. Whether the threat was real or imaginary didn’t matter. DeLorenzo hadn’t imagined the shrinking sales figures. Business had slowed down, and the recent, nostalgic surge wasn’t enough to change his mind.

The decision was difficult. DeLorenzo had been a booster for the City of Trenton. He gave police officers breaks on their checks, opened a concession stand at the nearby Sun National Bank Center and simply kept his restaurant in the city longer than most—rival DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies closed up its Hudson Street location in January 2012, for instance.

But DeLorenzo knew he had to put his business first.

“I want to be busy,” DeLorenzo said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m moving. Business started slowing down a bit, and I wondered, ‘Is something in the pizza lacking? Or the service?’ No. It’s the neighborhood. That’s why the people stopped coming here. A lot of people told me, ‘I won’t come to Trenton.’”

The phone rang as DeLorenzo finished the thought. He slid out of the booth to answer it.

“DeLorenzo’s.

“No, we haven’t moved yet. We’re at Hamilton Avenue until the 13th.

“Sloan Avenue. We hope to be open by the end of April.

“Yes, sure. I understand.

“OK, we’ll see you in Hamilton. Bye.”

He hung up the phone, and turned to me. He wore a look that said the woman on the other end of the line had just reinforced his point.

“See?” he said.

* * *

Some elements of the DeLorenzo’s legacy are shrouded in mist.

For one thing, members of the family don’t even agree on how long it’s been since DeLorenzo’s tomato pies first filled Trenton’s bellies. On the restaurant’s website, the DeLorenzo’s Pizza folks claim the family started making pies in 1938. The DeLorenzo Tomato Pie website says the family got started two years sooner, in 1936. Both agree Joe DeLorenzo started the family’s interest in dough, cheese and sauce, whenever it was that he started it.

Clearly, DeLorenzo’s has an occasionally opaque history, but Trenton’s role in shaping the story can’t be debated.

The 12 DeLorenzo siblings were born to Italian immigrants, and like so many Italian-Americans of that time, they lived in Trenton’s Chambersburg section. Joe DeLorenzo, one of the 12 children, mastered the art of pizzamaking at another restaurant in the neighborhood before opening his own place, at the corner of Hudson and Mott Streets.

All the DeLorenzo children helped out at the restaurant as they could. Their mother, Maria, canned the tomatoes to be used on the pie. The men had the more prominent role, with each of the eight boys learning pizzamaking from one of his brothers. The brothers closely guarded the family recipe, keeping it among themselves. (Even today, Rick DeLorenzo, Jr. makes every piece of dough used in his restaurant.) Among the key ingredients in the dough was—and still is—Trenton tap water.

The restaurant eventually moved to the corner of South Broad Street and Ferry Street. When World War II broke out, four of the older DeLorenzo brothers—including Joe—went into the military, leaving the restaurant to three younger brothers: Rick Sr., Pat and Raymond.

When her sons returned from the war, Maria purchased a building near the corner of Hudson and Swan Streets in Chambersburg, and gave it to two of her older sons, Chick and Jimmy, to start their own restaurant. The eatery—DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies—opened in 1947 at 530 Hudson St. At the same time, the family sold the South Broad Street building, and Rick Sr. and Pat opened a new restaurant on Hamilton Avenue, near the post office. It was the first of several buildings on Hamilton Avenue Rick Sr. would use for his business.

Chick and Jimmy’s restaurant developed a style and a clientele of its own, which led to whispers of a rivalry between the two DeLorenzo pizzerias. The family insists there were no hard feelings between the brothers, just an opportunity for more of them to do business.

“There was no feud or anything,” Rick DeLorenzo, Jr. said. “Why they did it that way, who knows? That’s the way they did it.”

Still, a friendly competition survives to this day and extends beyond the family. Ask a local which DeLorenzo’s is better, and you’ll likely get a strong opinion. The answer will often be just one of two Trenton streets: Hamilton Avenue or Hudson Street.

Those will always be the choices, it seems, even though there are no longer any DeLorenzo’s restaurants in Trenton. DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies closed its Chambersburg spot in January 2012, in favor of a Robbinsville location that opened a few years before, in 2007.

In a sense, the restaurants have simply followed many of their customers out of the city and into the suburbs. Rick DeLorenzo, Jr. himself made that journey as a child in the mid-1960s. He spent his first eight years living on Melrose Avenue in Trenton before his family picked up and moved to Hamilton. He’s lived in Hamilton ever since.

Still, it is hard for him not to feel something for city he worked in nearly every day for 40 years. DeLorenzo starting working for his father, Rick Sr., when he a student at Notre Dame High School. He went into the medical field for awhile, working as a lab technician. When he faced a choice between having to go back to school to continue his medical career or working at the family restaurant, DeLorenzo chose to follow his father into the tomato pie business.

“It’s probably the best move I’ve ever made,” DeLorenzo said.

Rick Sr. ran the business into the 21st century, before handing it off to his son in 2002. Until this year, DeLorenzo had made only minor changes to the business since taking it over. His daughters, Melissa and Maria, were the first women since their great-aunts allowed to work at the restaurant. DeLorenzo said, for some reason, his father didn’t hire women.

He opened a counter inside the Risoldi’s Thriftway supermarket on Quakerbridge Road in Hamilton to capture the business of busy suburban customers. (The counter in Risoldi’s closed recently in anticipation of the main storefront’s move to nearby Sloan Avenue.) Though only 57 and not ready for retirement, DeLorenzo has already started grooming his son, Michael, to take control of the business.

Until recently, the least likely change seemed to be relocating the restaurant. But, in the last 10 years, news of gangs and violent crime in Trenton scared away DeLorenzo’s customers. The restaurant had no parking, and some people felt uncomfortable parking in the surrounding neighborhoods. Other patrons complained that people on the street would ask them for money as they walked to and from their cars.

Things like that happen in every city, but they were enough of a hassle that many customers stopped eating at DeLorenzo’s.

“It’s not conducive to running a business,” DeLorenzo said. “We’re one of the few [old] restaurants left in [Trenton]. It used to be like the Restaurant Capital of New Jersey. Little by little, everyone’s moving out. I held on as long as I could.”

* * *

Nearly every day for three years, DeLorenzo would drive by the vacant Bob Evans restaurant en route to Risoldi’s Thriftway.

“That’d be a great location,” he would think. “If I ever had to move, that’s the place I’d want to be.”

So, when he decided a year ago to move his restaurant, DeLorenzo didn’t even have to make decision about where he’d go. After ensuring the location received its tap water from Trenton—“I had to make sure it had Trenton water”— he immediately turned his attention to the property at 147 Sloan Ave.

Negotiations were complex—a local woman owns the land, but Bob Evans Farms, Inc. owns the building—and took longer than DeLorenzo anticipated. But he remained dedicated to the Sloan Avenue parcel. In the end, DeLorenzo agreed to sublease the remaining 12 years on the Bob Evans lease. DeLorenzo can negotiate to buy the building after the lease expires, which he plans to do.

In the meantime, he wants to put his restaurant’s old home on Hamilton Avenue up for sale, or maybe rent it out. With help from some contractors, DeLorenzo practically gutted the old building April 16, removing the orange booths, the four 50-plus-year-old pizza ovens, the pie preparation tables, equipment like dough mixers and even the old, mechanical cash register.

All the items have since been moved to a special place in the Sloan Avenue building. The booths were installed in a section of the restaurant, called “the Hamilton Avenue Room,” where DeLorenzo tried to recreate the look of his establishment’s former home. The equipment went in the open kitchen, visible from the dining room. The four pizza ovens were installed, plus two additional, identical ones DeLorenzo purchased and had refurbished.

DeLorenzo is confident the quality will be exactly the same on Sloan Avenue as it was on Hamilton Avenue, and the waits should be shorter thanks to the extra two ovens and two additional piemakers. And, unlike its predecessor on Hamilton Avenue, the Sloan Avenue building has on-site parking, electronic registers that accept credit cards and restrooms that don’t require walking through the kitchen.

The restaurant will be open seven days a week at the new location, a switch from the closed-on-Sunday-and-Monday schedule of recent years. The new menu also had some changes with the addition of soups, salad and dessert. Since the mid-1980s, the DeLorenzos had relied solely on their signature product—the Trenton tomato pie—for survival.

DeLorenzo said the move required more of his time than he had expected.

“There’s a lot of things to think of,” DeLorenzo said. “It’s not just coming in, turning on the oven and getting started. A lot of planning. I’d rather just be making the pizza.”

* * *

To fully understand why a restaurant moving out of Trenton and into the suburbs—hardly a new development—has triggered such emotion, one must look at the restaurant’s patrons.

They are the people who would line up outside 1007 Hamilton Ave. before DeLorenzo’s opened, hoping to get the first pie of the day. They’re the folks waiting outside, even though it’s raining or cold, because there’s no waiting area in the restaurant, and they feel the wait is worth it.

They’re the people who made scenes like these a regular occurrence, who return to the restaurant at the same time every week, even as their numbers have grown as they added generations. They’ve seemingly set out to prove that unwavering devotion to DeLorenzo’s Pizza isn’t limited to DeLorenzo family members.

Occasionally, DeLorenzo would peek out his restaurant’s window to see the line forming well before opening, or would take the phone off the hook because the kitchen could hardly keep up with the demand for tomato pies. The community’s love of his restaurant always floored him.

“I’m honored,” DeLorenzo said. “You never expect that kind of stuff when you’re in business. It’s definitely flattering to be noticed by a lot of people. It’s nice to be recognized.”

Perhaps the biggest fan is Hamilton resident Doug Martin, a retired track coach and history teacher at Steinert High School. Martin introduced DeLorenzo’s Pizza to thousands of students who crossed his path in his four decades at Steinert, including me. (DeLorenzo recognizes Martin’s role in bringing him new customers, telling me the retired educator is an “ambassador” for DeLorenzo’s Pizza. And DeLorenzo clearly appreciates Martin’s company. In 2010, DeLorenzo hung an article about Martin from this publication on the wall of his restaurant, by the entrance.)

Martin has long loved DeLorenzo’s, eating at the restaurant at least once a week, often with his brother, Dave. He even brought a picture of DeLorenzo’s with him abroad when he served as a marine in the Vietnam War. He said it made him feel more at home than a photo of any girlfriend could. It was with this fervor his athletes and students came to know DeLorenzo’s.

Taking Martin’s lead, the Steinert High cross-country team developed a ritual, called “respecting the pie.” It allegedly evolved out of necessity when one student overanxiously bit into a slice of pizza fresh from the oven and scalded the roof of his mouth.

To properly respect a pie, one must let the pizza sit untouched for a minute after it arrives at the table. Once the minute expires, diners separate the slices, and let them cool for another 30 seconds. Then—and only then—can the first piece of pizza be eaten, and only with a fork and knife. After that, the pie has been sufficiently respected, and all pre-pizza objectives met.

Few have reached this level of attachment to DeLorenzo’s, but the restaurant has plenty of devotees. On Facebook, 2,350 users have “liked” the restaurant, and a large number of them respond to the posts on the page. It is an engaged and invested audience.

They are people like Joe Howarth, a 57-year-old Hamilton native who routinely makes the 40-minute drive from his home in Marlton for some DeLorenzo’s pizza.

Howarth has three children of his own, has had a teaching career that’s brought him to places like Steinert High School, Nottingham High School and Sayen Elementary School and has served in public office, as the deputy mayor of Evesham Township and currently as a Burlington County freeholder. But every time he returns to DeLorenzo’s, he’s not a father or a teacher or a politician. He’s a child again, peeking through the kitchen window to get a better look at pies being made.

As soon as he arrives at the restaurant, Howarth said he looks around to see who he knows. There is always at least one familiar face, a person that brings him back to another time.

“If you take time and watch people in there, everybody knows everybody,” Howarth said. “That’s something that’s lacking a lot of times in businesses.”

Sometimes, that person is Howarth’s father, also named Joe, who started bringing the family to DeLorenzo’s in the early 1960s after meeting Joe DeLorenzo at the Hamilton Police Department. The elder Howarth worked as a detective in Hamilton, and Joe DeLorenzo did some custodial work at the police station. Howarth, then a small child, remembers the DeLorenzo brothers coming out to greet his father. Howarth’s father, now 90, still lives in Hamilton and still enjoys DeLorenzo’s pizza.

Howarth has passed the tradition on to his children. His two younger children, a son at Rutgers University and a daughter at Marymount Manhattan College, are close by and sometimes take the train south to Hamilton so Howarth can pick them up and drive them to DeLorenzo’s Pizza. They are thrilled the new location is only a mile from the train station.

A lot has changed since the Howarths grabbed their first pie at DeLorenzo’s, but like many longtime customers, their standard for pizza hasn’t.

“As far as pizza, DeLorenzo’s is an institution,” Howarth said. “My family judges every pizza they eat to it. They’ll say, ‘It’s good, but it’s not DeLorenzo’s.’”

And they don’t expect that to ever change, even if the restaurant’s address has.

* * *

The first day at Sloan Avenue approached, and Al Pingitor didn’t know what to expect.

The 68-year-old had been employed at DeLorenzo’s Pizza since 1961, and, in his life, hadn’t worked anywhere other than the building on Hamilton Avenue. As he cleaned off tables after another lunch rush, he hadn’t really processed the reality that he’d soon be working somewhere new.

“We’ve been talking about it for so long,” Pingitor said. “All of a sudden it’s here. It’s real. This is the only place I’ve ever come for work. It’s bittersweet. There’s a little bit of sadness. But I’m looking forward to the new challenge.”

The job was one of Pingitor’s final connections to the city where he grew up. Pingitor has lived in Wrightstown since 1990, but he’d been working in Trenton since John DeLorenzo—the brother of Joe, Chick, Rick Sr., et al.—offered him a job when the two crossed paths at a cookout on Chambers Street in 1961. He graduated that spring from Trenton Catholic Boys’ High School as part of the institution’s final graduating class, and began working long hours at the restaurant then known as DeLorenzo Brothers.

In the beginning, he made about $95 per week, working 14-15 hours a day, six days a week. He hadn’t thought much about the last 52 years of making pies and waiting tables on Hamilton Avenue. He hadn’t had a reason. But the move got him reminiscing, and talking about the memories conjured up even more images from the past.

He remembers the 1960s, when the restaurant was open seven days a week until midnight. He thought about how the eatery used to have a full menu, complete with steak sandwiches, ravioli, soup, antipasti and salads. He recalled how there used to be basketball games on Sunday mornings at nearby Trenton Junior High School No. 2, and people would come by DeLorenzo’s after the games for a bite to eat. They’d be finished by 2 p.m., and the crew at DeLorenzo’s would lock the doors, clean up the place and open the restaurant again at 3 for Sunday dinner.

Pingitor may have a chance to one day tell similar stories about the time DeLorenzo’s packed up and moved to Hamilton. He said he’ll continue working at the eatery as long as he can, and it may be hard for him to stay away now anyway.

Pingitor never had a slice before working at DeLorenzo’s Pizza. Now, he can’t imagine going a day without one.

“My wife gets mad at me,” Pingitor said. “Sometimes, I bring home pies, put them in the icebox and save them for later. She says, ‘You eat pizza all week. Why are you eating that?’ I don’t know. I just want a slice or two at home sometimes.”

For more information on DeLorenzo’s Pizza, go online to delospizza.com or facebook.com/delorenzos.