The writing on the front outside wall of Original Dominick’s Pizza on Route 29 is simple: “Famous Trenton Tomato Pie.”
Not so simple is the realization that this low white building that cars zoom past on a daily basis is one of the few — if not the only — shops in Trenton that sells the pie branded with the city’s name.
The other and more famous Trenton pie makers have moved to the suburbs.
So the writing is on the wall. Dominick’s owner, Manuel Gomez, is the guy who is keeping a Trenton tradition — and part of history — alive.
“I bought from the boss,” says Gomez about becoming the heir of Trenton-styled pies.
A Guatemala native, Gomez left his family’s farm to come to Trenton 22 years ago. “To join friends and family,” he says.
He supported his wife and two daughters working at two Dominick’s Pizzas — one in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, the other in Trenton.
Then 10 years ago he bought the store from Vincent “Vinny” Scavo, an Italian immigrant who came to New York City in 1962 and worked with his pizza empire-building older brother, Dominick.
Vinny, who settled in Hopewell and died in 2011, learned his brother’s trade and then traded on the name and business to create a series of pizza shops in the Delaware Valley region.
The rest is history. And so are the words “Trenton Style” on the Trenton shop’s front wall and menu.
So what difference does a name make? Let’s get technical.
While some say all tomato pies are pizzas (which means pies), not all pizzas are tomato pies — a point that will be challenged later.
But there is little challenge to a Trenton pie’s first distinction: the crust. It needs to be thin yet able to hold up when it comes out of the oven. Often the crust is well done and a little blackened around the edges.
For both pizza and tomato pie, there are four basics — the dough, the oil, the cheese, and the sauce. With pizza, the tomato sauce gets ladled on first, followed by shredded mozzarella and toppings.
But with tomato pie, after a drizzle of olive oil, the cheese goes on and then the sauce — or, more accurately, the crushed tomatoes.
As Pizza Today online magazine’s Scott Weiner writes, the Trenton-styled pie is a Neapolitan pizza derivation that is “round and lightly topped with mozzarella and tomatoes. Unlike contemporary cheese-laden pizzas, Trenton tomato pie puts crushed tomato on top of a gentle layer of low moisture mozzarella. Each purveyor has a slightly different take, but all versions are dense and crunchy without the characteristic flop of a New York slice.”
Now let’s get historical. The name tomato pie first cropped up in New York around the turn of the century as an easy way to explain the then-unfamiliar word and menu item “pizza.”
While food historians say peasants ate flatbreads with toppings for thousands of years, two historic moments are connected with the contemporary pizza.
The first was when Europeans discovered the Americas and brought back the tomato.
The second was Queen Margherita of Savoy’s 1889 visit to Naples where she was presented with a pie resembling the Italian flag.
According to “Pizza: A Slice of Heaven” author Ed Levine, that pie, now known as the Margherita, was a defining moment for the idea of a pizza.
That event took place one year after the city of Trenton annexed the adjacent Borough of Chambersburg Township. By then history was already being made by Italians who were settling in great numbers to find jobs in Trenton’s steel and pottery industries. They repaid the city with the creation of the Trenton pie.
As Wiener writes, “Joe Silvestro opened a restaurant called Joe’s Tomato Pies on South Clinton Avenue in 1910. They baked thin, crunchy pizzas with a light amount of cheese topped with roughly crushed tomatoes. One of Joe’s employees, Joe Papa, split off in 1912 to open his own restaurant, called Papa’s Tomato Pies, just down the street, when he was only 17 years old. Although it has moved several times over the past 105-plus years, Papa’s has operated continuously since it first opened. That makes Papa’s the oldest continuously run tomato pie restaurant in the United States.”
But that was then. “In Trenton, there was a tomato pie place on every other corner,” says Sam Amico of DeLorenzo’s in Robbinsville. “For a lot of people from North Jersey or New York, maybe the tomato pie isn’t the same pizza they grew up with, but it’s something they’ve become loyal to and support.”
As Trenton’s tomato pie culture began to change, Vincent Amico (no relation to the earlier mentioned Amico) decided to document some of the old pie men and their restaurants.
In 2006 he produced “Pie Eyed,” a 30-minute homage to tomato pies and those who made them.
A native of North Trenton, Amico had retired from the healthcare business, having owned the Millhouse Nursing Home in Trenton, among other endeavors.
“I said to a friend of mine, ‘Let’s make a movie about the people who make Trenton tomato pies because they’re not going to be here forever.’ And sure enough, they’re not.”
At the end of his movie, Amico makes a point echoed by everyone who still makes or eats tomato pies. It’s important to have fresh ingredients and the skill to put them together. But the most important thing is the customer. That may seem painfully obvious to anyone who is in business. But with tomato pie, the connection with Chambersburg and the people and places not there anymore is in full play.
“My theory is it really comes down to what you are used to with sauce for pasta. Some people like thin sauce, some like thick. You choose one or the other because that’s what you’re used to. The people who grew up with this all live in the suburbs, but they have the same allegiance. If you get into a discussion on who has the best pie you can get into a shouting match. People get rabid.”
Allegiance and arguments also pop up on the Facebook page “Trenton NJ — Authentic Tomato Pie — Nothin’ Else!” It’s “dedicated to the Trenton NJ Authentic Tomato Pie … recipes, techniques, extras, utensils used, pertinent personal stories of failures and successes when trying to make the ‘pie.’” It also shares articles and information regarding Trenton pie makers.
Another thing that may start a argument comes from Nick Azzaro, owner of the esteemed and historical Papa’s Yardville. “There’s no difference between a tomato pie and a pizza,” he said authoritatively in a 2013 interview.
But Gomez back at Dominick’s challenges Azzaro’s claim. And after estimating his sales are divided 50-50 between regular pizza and Trenton pie and sharing his ingredients — Felto de Pomedora Italian peeled tomatoes, Chef’s Quality Brand Olive Pome Oil, and Mazzarella Grand — Part Skim — Gomez says, “Tomato pie is better for dieters. Less cheese, good taste.”
And while Dominick’s pie’s high notes of sweet tomatoes accented by traces of cheese and olive oil and the fresh warmth of an al dente thin crust won’t really help a dieter, it helps keep a Trenton tradition right where it belongs.
Original Dominick’s Pizza, 206 Sanhican Drive. www.dominickspizzatrenton.com or 609-656-4300.