The Many Lives of Tomato Pie

On the website for Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, Conn., ordering the “Original Tomato Pie” is accompanied by a warning: “By selecting this, you are acknowledging that this pie has no Mozzarella on it.”

In New Haven apizza nomenclature, the tomato pie, also known as a plain pie, is a thin-crust pizza blistered in a coal-fired oven and then covered with a thin layer of sauce and a sprinkling of grated Pecorino Romano.

Recipe: Tomato Pie

New Haven might be best known for its white clam pizzas, but the heartbeat of the city just might be the humble but mighty tomato pie.

Jennifer Kelly, one of Frank Pepe’s granddaughters, estimates that 75 to 80 percent of the tables she served before retiring ordered it. “That’s my favorite pie,” she said. “It is the pie that my grandfather started. It was a pie that I was raised on. It’s simple. And it’s just delicious.”

While America has gone wild with pizza toppings, the tomato pie’s allure is in its focus. Even its name is unadorned. It’s not named for the visit of a queen, like pizza margherita, or a pop-culture reference. And there are no flashy flourishes: no silky prosciutto, no hot honey, not even a layer of gooey cheese to hide behind.

It is an elemental product that takes different forms in cities across the Northeast where Italian immigrants shaped the foodways.

At Iannelli’s Brick Oven Bakery, Vincent Iannelli, a third-generation tomato pie maker, still uses his grandmother’s sauce recipe and his grandfather’s oven.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

“You need three basic ingredients,” said Vincent Iannelli, who operates the third-generation Iannelli’s Brick Oven Bakery, which opened in Philadelphia in 1910. “You need a good gravy, a good dough and an amazing oven.”

In Philadelphia, tomato pie is a springy, square flatbread slathered with tomato sauce and comparable to the Sicilian sfincione. It’s sold at room temperature primarily by Italian bakeries, alongside seeded loaves and cannoli — a contrast to the hot, thin-crust pizzas found in New Haven.

Pizzerias in Utica, N.Y., serve focaccia-style slices similar to the ones in Philadelphia, and across Rhode Island you can likewise find “pizza strips,” which are longer and more rectangular. Trenton, N.J., is the one place where tomato pie is not free of mozzarella. There, it is a round pizza first layered with cheese and toppings, and then crowned with sauce.

Once upon a time, almost all pizza — then a word unknown to the general American public outside Italian enclaves — was called tomato pie in the United States. In the 1930s, English-language newspapers featured job listings for tomato pie bakers and advertisements for tomato pie ovens, sometimes including that obscure term “pizza” in parentheses.

Frank Pepe, a Neapolitan immigrant, sold tomato pies from a pushcart before opening his New Haven pizzeria in 1925.Credit…Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

Pizza was then a local dish little known outside Naples, according to Stephen Cerulli, a lecturer in Italian American history at Hostos Community College. (Cheese did not appear on Neapolitan pizza until about 200 years ago.) Naturally, many of America’s first pizzaiolos were from the region. That included Frank Pepe, a baker who got his start selling tomato pies from a pushcart to immigrant factory workers before opening New Haven’s first pizzeria in 1925.

Likewise, Eugeno Burlino, a 20-something Neapolitan immigrant and pastry chef, would walk the streets of Utica during festivals for saints wielding a big pan of tomato pie made by his wife, Michellina Maria, and sell square plain or garlic and anchovy-topped slices for a nickel. In 1914, the couple opened O’Scugnizzo Pizzeria, one of the oldest continuously run family-owned pizzerias in the United States.

Neapolitans emigrating at the turn of the 20th century had an outsize influence on American food culture, despite not being the largest group of Italian émigrés. “They controlled much of the imported food from Italy,” said Simone Cinotto, a professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in northern Italy. That included products like canned tomatoes from Naples that Italians from other regions may never have seen in their hometowns, but turned into livelihoods after moving to the United States. Pizza, said Mr. Cinotto, was more widespread in America than it was in Italy come the mid-20th century.

Those regional nuances were lost on Americans new to the food. “Italians call it pizza, but we call this an All-American tomato pie,” reads the introduction to a tomato pie recipe in a Feb. 5, 1956, edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Around the 1950s and 1960s, as more Americans became familiar with the dish, English descriptors became unnecessary, and tomato pie became known as “pizza pie” or just “pizza.”

As the dish evolved and plentiful toppings became popular, flatbread covered in just tomato sauce or minimally topped with grated cheese or anchovies and garlic disappeared altogether from some places. But in a few locales, tomato pie survived as an entity now distinct from cheese-covered pizza.

At O’Scugnizzo Pizzeria in Utica, N.Y., the tomato pie is focaccialike and similar in style to ones found in Philadelphia.Credit…Benjamin Cleeton for The New York Times

Today, tomato pie is a Utica standby on game-day buffets, at lunch or for a snack. Michael Burlino, grandson of Eugeno and a co-owner of O’Scugnizzo Pizzeria, says customers will “grab a slice of tomato pie while they’re waiting for their pizza.”

In Philadelphia, local publications run long lists of the city’s best tomato pies, which are also called church pies or gravy pies. More recently, chefs of newer restaurants, like Angelo’s Pizzeria and Pizzeria Beddia, started putting forth their own tomato pies.

At Pizzeria Beddia, which opened in Philadelphia in 2013, Joe Beddia infuses crushed tomatoes with garlic and olive oil for his sauce and tops his tomato pies with Sicilian oregano.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

“It wasn’t something I grew up with,” said Joe Beddia, who was raised in Lancaster County, Pa. “But when I tasted it, it was just like, ‘Oh my god.’” At Pizzeria Beddia, his tomato pie is made with a dough fermented for 24 hours and a rich tomato sauce, and is drizzled with a fruity olive oil and sprinkled with Sicilian oregano. You can eat it there with a glass of fizzy natural wine at the white marble bar. It’s $5, compared with the $1.50 classic sold to go in a paper bag by older establishments.

Mr. Iannelli, the third-generation tomato pie maker, has changed how his family bakery operates. He spends much of the summer on the Jersey Shore, “so that’s not going to work for my schedule,” he said of an old-school bakery’s typical hours. Throughout the year, Mr. Iannelli, who also works in real estate, sells whole pies through the food e-commerce site Goldbelly; the bakery itself is open to the public only 15 days a year, at random, between October and March.

He still makes his tomato pies with his grandmother’s gravy recipe in the same seasoned, 1,000-degree oven his grandfather used. For the precious few days Mr. Iannelli opens the bakery’s doors, one-time regulars who knew his parents and grandparents eagerly pop in to grab a slice, along with some biscotti or focaccia, and shoot the breeze — a fleeting relic of the old neighborhood in both banter and sustenance.

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