When I asked my editor if tomato pie was a new food trend we should cover, she looked so confused that I immediately flushed as red as gravy.
After more than four years living around the area, I knew about the Italian-American regionalism for pasta sauce — but somehow I’d missed the memo on tomato pie. I immediately got schooled, but turns out I’m not the only one. Just this month, the New York Times “discovered” the savory, pizza-like dish.
To further my endeavor to embrace Philadelphia as a way of life, I decided to spend an entire weekend eating tomato pie. I didn’t get to every shop listed below (that’ll have to wait till the Knight Foundation awards me a grant for important tomato pie coverage — see also my live reporting from the Pizzeria Beddia line), but the amount I did consume was honestly disturbing.
Still, the experiment was delicious. And I now have a deep appreciation for all the different variations, which are often served at room temperature but not always, range from thick and airy to thin and crispy, and mostly don’t have cheese but sometimes definitely do.
Here are top spots for tomato pie in Philly, from old-school classics to newcomers on the scene.
758 S 9th St.; 215-922-0445
This fifth-generation Italian Market shop has been serving tomato pies for most of its 100-year existence. The giant rectangles that emerge from the brick oven are unabashedly thick, almost like focaccia, and are covered with a sticky-sweet paste and sprinkling of oregano plus grated cheese.
7616 Castor Ave.; 215-745-2262
These Northeast Philly pies are thick, crunchy and saucy without being overwhelming. Word is they’re even better the next day, which is basically the highest compliment pizza (or something like pizza) can get.
1526 W Ritner St.; 215-334-1340
This fourth-generation run operation has expanded since its first South Philly brick oven churned out sauce-covered squares in 1953 to five different locations throughout the region. Their version of the classic tomato pie strikes a perfect balance between not too sweet and not too garlicky, with a biscuit-like crust.
4653 Umbria St.; 215-483-8585
This Manayunk bakery promises to give Philadelphians a “taste of the old country” with dough that’s mixed, raised and rolled by three kitchen workers daily. Proprietor Frank Marchiano’s mother, Nunziata, reportedly used to say that eating a slice of a tomato pie at room temperature was always best because it allows you to enjoy the true taste and texture of the tomatoes.
2215 S 11th St.; 215-389-5912
Don’t let the name fool you: this bakery is as Philly as it gets. The crust here has a mid-range girth similar to that in most upside-down pies (another regional specialty). Bonus: you can buy your own dough and try making a tomato pie yourself. Also, don’t forget to ask Steve to show you the oven and give you the “Bread Monologue.”
1549 S 13th St.; 215-755-8900
This South Philly spot has been serving its thick-crusted, square-shaped, parmesan-dusted tomato pies for more than 30 years. Slices were best enjoyed in the adjacent dining room, which hosted live piano and opera nights, but it’s currently under construction so delivery will have to do.
538 N 4th St.; 267-687-8874
This version takes inspiration from what’s known in some circles as a Trenton-style tomato pie. Listed on the menu as “Old World Tomato Pie,” the ultrathin square crust is topped with a very simple sauce of crushed plum tomatoes, and — unlike most Philly-style tomato pies — several dollops of fresh mozzarella.
1305 Locust St.; 215-644-9287
Locally-grown organic Italian tomatoes, red pepper flakes and extra spices make this Roman-style, thin crust, wood-fired pie in Center City stand out. Like other “Trenton-style” pies, it also has some mozzarella, a welcome addition for anyone who needs a little cheese to stomach all that gravy.
1929 Chestnut St.; 215-567-8892
Having a whole section called “Tomato Pie” on the menu is one thing that distinguishes Philly slice shops from those in other cities. Like at this Rittenhouse-area spot, where they’re top sellers, these iterations are usually round like a classic pizza, but covered with a thick, sweet sauce and no melted cheese.
Famous outside the city
Last note: If you’re willing to travel for your tomato pie fix, these are a two spots outside Philadelphia famous for their renditions. Tomato pie road trip, anyone?