Tony Altomare has a rule about being in the restaurant business.
“If you come into it just to make money, you’re setting yourself up for failure,” he said. “If you come in because you love it and you’re passionate about it, then you’re in it for the right reason and the money’s going to follow. You have to come in because you’re passionate about wanting to please people. The food business is too hard to succeed in, if you’re not passionate about it.”
Altomare’s passion is found around the Delaware Valley. He owns 10 restaurants, the latest being “Wit or Witout? Famous Philly Eats” at 199 Sloan Ave. in the shadow of the Hamilton 24 AMC theater.
It is Altomare’s second Wit or Witout, the first being in his hometown of Philadelphia. He grew up in East Falls, 10 minutes from Center City, and also owns eight Tony Roni restaurants in Delaware and Montgomery counties.
Wit or Witout, which specializes in Philadelphia tomato pies and Philly cheese steaks, is going strong after celebrating its 1-year anniversary on Jan. 21. It has a true Philadelphia feel, as a modern industrial look provides exposed ceiling beams painted dark gray, along with Philly-themed wallpaper featuring such icons as Rocky.
“I love this area and the clientele in the whole Hamilton area,” Altomare said. “It’s like the clientele I serve at all my other stores. We like to be in working-class communities. I just love the mix of the whole Hamilton community, and I think they appreciate good, quality food in Hamilton. I know they have a good taste for pizza because it’s pretty popular in Trenton and Hamilton.”
Some might question the wisdom of opening a pizza joint right by DeLorenzo’s, but Altomare feels there is enough to go around and noted that he has a good relationship with his legendary neighbors. He also pointed out that each establishment serves its own unique brand of tomato pie.
“He’s got the Trenton style pizza, and we have the rustica style, which is more Neapolitan,” Altomare said. “There’s no shape to it. It’s like old-world fashion pizza. A lot of pizzas are round, they have the crust on it. This is just a flat, no-shaped pizza, with thin and crispy rectangle crust.”
The sauce is made with filetto di pomodoro, which is Italian for the filet of the tomato. It is mixed with fresh basil and sautéed with garlic and herbs, and placed on the crust with no cheese.
“We use the very best part of the tomato for the sauce,” Altomare said. “That’s very important.”
For cheese lovers, there is a pie on which provolone is put on the crust, then covered by sauce. Another pie features fresh mozzarella and fresh basil, which are added once it comes out of the oven. There are also standard tomato and cheese pizzas with all the usual extras, such as sausage, pepperoni, etc.
Altomare, who has been in the business over 20 years, loves his pizza but would never call it the best. Nor would he call his competitors’ the best. The reason being, he feels pizza is purely subjective, so one person’s “best” is another’s “just OK.”
“With pizza, you’re partial to a certain kind,” he said. “Some people like thicker crust, some like thinner. Some like a sweeter sauce, some like a sharper cheese, others a lighter cheese. There’s no pizza that’s the best pizza in the world, because everyone is gonna like what they’re gonna like.”
While there is a plethora of hot and cold hoagies and fresh salads to choose from, the signature sandwich at Wit Or Witout is the Philly cheesesteak. The rolls come from famed South Jersey bakery Liscio’s, the steak is fresh and the cheese options are melted American, a Grande Provolone or the traditional Cheese Whiz.
Each comes with or without onions, which is where the restaurant’s name is derived. When ordering in the famed Philadelphia establishments, customers are immediately asked “wit or witout,” referring to onions. The finishing touches can be found at a hot pepper bar.
“The rolls are always fresh,” Altomare said. “The meat is made for us, and our people are trained well. They’re trained for a few days before they even touch the steak. We don’t hire anybody not representing our brand. They go through extensive training so they understand what our culture is all about and why they’re there.”
The owner, who takes turns cooking at each restaurant, added that “we tell people, ‘We don’t bring you in to make cheesesteaks, we don’t bring you in to work our register, we bring you in to let you know that our business is 50 percent culture and 50 percent products.’”
The restaurant’s slogan is “Great food, great Philly attitude.”
“Our goal is that every customer walks in and loves the attitude they get, loves the experience,” Altomare said. “They should get quick service. They’re not waiting for a long time, and they sit down and have a good meal.”
Rest assured, he is passionate about that attitude.
Wit Or Witout is located at 199 Sloan Ave. in Hamilton. Phone: (609) 588-8388. Web: witorwitout.com.