Fans of Trenton-style tomato pies will always argue about which one is best. Some say it’s DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies in Robbinsville, while others favor Papa’s, also in Robbinsville, or Palermo’s in Bordentown. (DeLorenzo’s Pizza in Hamilton has plenty of supporters, but most would say they make pizza, not tomato pie, where the mozzarella cheese is on the bottom and the chunky crushed tomatoes are on top.)
USA Today recently decided to weigh in on the matter through its affiliate website, 10Best. And while they did include those three local favorites on their list of the top 10 tomato pies in New Jersey, none of them managed to earn the top spot. The 10Best editors bestowed that honor upon Classico Tomato Pies, a one-year-old pizzeria in West Windsor.
The website’s editors identified two main varieties of tomato pie: Trenton style, and Philadelphia bakery style, in which a focaccia-like crust is topped with chunky tomato and little or no cheese. They came up with a single top-10 list including both styles. Restaurants on the list beyond the local pizzerias include Krispy Pizza of Old Bridge, Maruca’s Tomato Pies in Seaside Heights, Cacia’s Bakery in four South Jersey locations, Holy Tomato Pies in Blackwood, DeLucia’s in Raritan and Razza in Jersey City.
Classico opened last August behind the CVS at the intersection of Southfield Road and Princeton Hightstown Road. The now award-winning restaurant is a dream come true for owners Linda and James Pittari and Steve Cabrera.
DeLorenzo’s and Papa’s, of course, have their roots in Trenton, having moved out to the suburbs in recent years. Classico has city roots as well, through pizzaiolo Cabrera, who grew up in South Trenton.
The Notre Dame High School grad learned how to make pies at two local pizzerias: Vincent’s in Hamilton, and another which he asks me not to name, but which is regionally known and has also left Trenton for the suburbs in recent years.
It was in the time he was making pizzas at the latter restaurant, both in Trenton and Hamilton, that he got to know Linda and her son, James, who were frequent customers. Whenever they visited, they would request to have their pie made by Cabrera.
“You could tell the difference if someone else made the pie,” Linda says. “The crust, the taste—his pies stand out.”
The Pittaris and Cabrera became friendly, and would talk about someday opening a restaurant together as partners. Linda’s grandfather, Antonio Cirella, had owned a restaurant called Arcadia on 13th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan, but neither she nor James had any experience running a restaurant. She had been an executive with Merrill Lynch, and he was a parish administrator at All Saints Church in Brooklyn.
Cabrera left the pizzeria in December 2016, after which the trio took the plunge and started looking for a place to call home. They settled on the location where Il Forno Cafe and Trattoria had recently closed. They designed Classico to be simple, open and airy, with red brick walls and rows of wooden tables.
Cabrera has worked at a number of other restaurants as well, including Oliver A Bistro in Bordentown, and says he tried to take the best from every place he’s worked and make it work at Classico. He says he liked working with the pizza ovens at Vincent’s a little more than that other place, because they were larger. He had brand new ones similar to those installed at Classico and started working on recipes for his dough and his sauce.
“I wanted to get it just right because whatever we came up with was what we were going to use forever,” he says. “People want consistency, they don’t want pizza that changes all the time.”
People tell him his pies remind them of the ones he used to make at the other place, but he says both the dough and the sauce recipes are his originals.
Because the crust is so thin, he says, it’s essential that the dough of each pie is uniform. The goal is to get it so the pie is cooked evenly from center to edge, so there’s no bend in the slices. It is a different art from making other kinds of pizza; Cabrera has worked with staff who have had to relearn the craft despite years of experience as pizzamakers.
Linda says Cabrera’s standards are high. “If it doesn’t come out perfect, he will throw it away and start over,” she says.
Classico has had basically the same pies on its menu from the beginning. With a significant vegetarian population in the area, they have added a number of vegetable toppings to the menu since opening. Plain tomato pies are popular, but Linda says the margherita pie, topped simply with fresh basil, fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce, is their best seller.
A large plain tomato pie is $16; a Sicilian pie is $18, and specialty pies like the margherita or the meat lovers are $23 for a large. Unlike that well known restaurant that Cabrera left behind, Classico also serves a variety of classic Italian dishes, like pasta with vodka sauce ($11.99) and eggplant parmigiana with pasta ($12.99), that use Linda’s grandfather’s recipes.
They also serve the kinds of sandwiches and salads one would expect to find in an Italian restaurant in the area. On weekends, they have a chef come in who adds seasonal specials to the menu. For dessert, options include Junior’s cheesecake and ice cream from Arctic and Thomas Sweet.
Business was decent at the start, the owners say, picking up once they started delivery service this year, and then again in April after a positive review appeared in the Trenton Times. They’ve also had some success with catering, occasionally closing the restaurant to host a special event for a customer.
Linda says that the community has been very supportive of Classico, with many customers having become friends over the past year. As if to illustrate her point, a customer comes into the restaurant during our interview with a tray of cookies and hugs for all three partners.
“This was always Steve’s dream,” Linda says. “And James and I, we just always wanted to do a business of our own. We never had a question about it working because we knew the product was so good.”
Classico Tomato Pies, 358 Princeton Hightstown Road, West Windsor. Phone: (609) 750-1234. Web: classicotomatopiesnj.com. Open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. The restaurant is BYOB.