Order a pepperoni, a green pepper, or an anchovy pizza, and you pretty much know what you’ll get.
Ask for a tomato pie, and all bets are off. In most of the country, the pizza guy may layer sliced tomatoes from the sub counter onto a red pizza and pop it into the oven. In Trenton and central New Jersey, you’ll get a thin-crust upside-down pizza, with cheese directly on the bottom crust and sauce on top.
Around here — particularly in South Philadelphia and a swath of the region running mainly from Manayunk to Norristown, as well as in Utica, N.Y. — tomato pie is an entirely different thing.
This is the tomato pie that started out a century ago in Italian American bakeries, some of which now specialize in the product along with traditional rolls and breads.
It’s baked in large rectangular or square sheet pans, like focaccia. Most, like Iannelli’s and Sarcone’s, have raised crusts along the edges. One popular shop — Gaeta’s — dispenses with the side crust and spreads its sauce across the entire top. Its oven’s heat helps caramelize the tomato sauce at the edges into a crunchy treat.
The tomato sauce is thick and slightly oily, just a notch thinner than tomato paste. Most shops’ sauces are sweet, though Marchiano’s and Sarcone’s lean toward savory thanks to a dose of oregano and other herbs. Carlino’s Market goes all chunky, adding plenty of basil.
What’s the secret in the sauce? No one will talk.
Perhaps most tellingly, tomato pie is not buried under tangles of mozzarella, as most red pizzas are. It is virtually cheeseless, though some popular shops, like Cacia’s, mix cheese into the sauce for a distinctive tang.
Others, like Corropolese, do not. Some, like Conshohocken Italian Bakery and Morabito’s, sprinkle just a rumor of grated Parmesan and Romano on top of the finished pies, almost as decoration.
Tomato pie is served cold or at room temperature. Always.
Each style has its adherents. I was raised in Northeast Philadelphia on Gaeta’s, but I’m also a fan of Corropolese (say it “CORE-puh-leeze”), just outside Norristown.
The origin of bakery-style tomato pie, incidentally, is lost to the ages. Illustrator Hawk Krall, waxing rhapsodic in Saveur several months ago about tomato pie from a Utica shop, called it “an American version of Sicilian sfincione, a similar flatbread sold on the streets of Palermo at room temperature, dusted with bread crumbs and anchovy.”
Joe Corropolese at Corropolese Bakery & Deli in East Norriton also was not sure of the origins, only that it was served in the home before bakeries began selling it. Corropolese, who has worked in the family business for 37 of his 51 years, says he sells 300 whole sheets a day from the Old Arch Road store alone; more come out of the locations in Limerick and Douglassville and soon a fourth in Oaks. Joe is a son of Guilio “Butch” Corropolese, whose father, an immigrant from Naples named Joe, founded the bakery in Norristown in 1924. Joe’s brother, Michael, runs the bakery. I chatted with Joe at the bakery the other day.
Where did tomato pie come from?
Back in Italy, they just got fresh tomatoes, crushed it down, poured it over, and just sprinkled on some cheese on top of it, and it was like dinner for them. Then it evolved into regular pizzas and all that, but this was a little niche thing.
Why tomato pie?
Everybody likes it, even little kids. A lot of people don’t like chunk tomatoes or they don’t like garlic, but tomato pie, I think, caters to pretty much everybody. If you don’t want it with cheese, you don’t have to get any sprinkled cheese. There’s a lot of vegans out there that don’t want the sprinkled cheese, so we don’t put the sprinkled cheese on.
What made it popular with you?
We started selling to grocery stores, and then in, I think it was ’86 or ’87, we opened up this store and then it just blew up from there. We pulled it out of the grocery stores and you had to come here for it.
Why did you do that?
Because I wanted [customers] to come here because we had deli meats and all that stuff. If you wanted our stuff, you had to come here. I was hoping, since they had to come here, everything else would go well, too. And it did. It was kind of like the draw, and now everybody knows. They will just come for tomato pie, and they’ll come for deli meats.
Morabito has the supermarket business now. You didn’t want it back?
They asked me first, and I know Mike, I’m like, ‘If Mike wants to do that kind of stuff, I said, Let him go to market.’ We’re in a couple of stores, like Di Bruno’s in Philadelphia. We don’t do supermarkets, though. We’ll do little delis and we always keep it like 10 miles away from [our] stores.
What’s in the sauce?
That I can’t really tell you.
Fresh tomatoes, salt, you know. Salt, sugar, seasonings — that’s as far as I can go with that.
I had to ask.
I know, I know.