When Frank and I were dating, he took me to his favorite pizza place in Virginia to try something I'd never heard of before—Trenton tomato pie.
"Nobody outside of New Jersey knows how to make it," he explained, "but it's the best pizza ever."
"If nobody outside of New Jersey knows how to make it," I asked, "why are we going to a restaurant in Virginia?"
"Because the owner is from Trenton," Frank explained, and then he told me all about his first time visiting the restaurant, when the owner was offering free samples of their pizza on the street and Frank got into some friendly banter with him about the best pizza. Frank said that tomato pie was the best, and the owner said, "We make that! I'm from Trenton." Frank was incredulous, so he told Frank to come in and he'd make him a pizza to prove that his was as good as the stuff from Trenton. "So I took him up on it," Frank said, "and by golly, it was."
So we went to the restaurant and I tried the tomato pie. I'd never had anything quite like it. Tomato pie is different from regular pizza in that the sauce is just crushed tomatoes, and the cheese goes underneath the sauce instead of on top. It sure is delicious, with a tomato-y sweetness you don't usually find in pizza. Now every time we go to New Jersey to visit Frank's family, the trip is not complete without eating Trenton tomato pie.
When Frank moved to Chicago, he embraced this city wholeheartedly and proudly adopted it as his own. He learned his way around quickly, bought White Sox t-shirts and learned the Chicago Bears fight song (I didn't even know they had a fight song!). But there is one thing about Chicago he can't accept—deep-dish pizza. He calls Chicago-style pizza "quiche" and insists that what they have on the East Coast is superior. Sadly, he hasn't been able to find a restaurant around here that serves his favorite tomato pie, and he often mentions how much he misses it.
One day after hearing Frank bemoan the lack of tomato pie in his life, I began to wonder if maybe I could make it for him myself. I'd tried making pizza before, both from scratch and using pre-made dough from Trader Joe's, and Frank liked it but didn't LOVE it. I thought maybe if I made his favorite pizza of all time, it might pass the bar of "Excellent," his highest praise for a meal (I've only managed to achieve it a few times, notably with Kate's roast chicken, Katrina's soup and Clare's oven-roasted asparagus).
Do you know how hard it is to find a recipe for Trenton tomato pie? It's hard. I could only find one website that had it. And once I found it, I discovered the process is a long one. The dough has to be made at least a day in advance (unlike my usual pizza dough staple, which rises in 15 minutes) and cooking the pizza on the actual day takes over an hour (mostly due to the oven heating up). But I planned ahead and persevered, and on Friday night I proudly presented my culinary masterpiece.
Well, guys, this recipe got an "Excellent." Frank was thrilled to pieces that I found a way to recreate his beloved tomato pie. He declared it the best pizza in the city of Chicago (no East Coast bias, of course). :)
I thought maybe you might enjoy a little "taste of New Jersey" at home, so here is the recipe for Frank's favorite Trenton tomato pie.
(Adapted from FromAway.com)
Trenton Tomato Pie
Makes two large pizzas
• 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting, shaping dough)
• 2 teaspoons salt
• 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
• 1 1/2 cups warm water
• 3–4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
• 1 24-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes, whole peeled
• 1 tablespoon cornmeal
• Optional: Italian seasoning (basil, oregano, etc.)
Whisk flour, salt, and yeast in a big mixing bowl. Use a wooden spoon to gradually incorporate water. Knead by hand and form into a ball.
Cover with plastic and let rest in a warm spot for eighteen hours. It will double in size, and bubbles will develop.
When you are ready to cook, place pizza stone in oven and preheat at your oven’s highest setting for one hour. (Ours reached 500 degrees.)
While oven is preheating, transfer the dough to a floured work surface, and divide into two equal portions. Fold each dough ball over on itself, seam side down, and let it sit under the plastic wrap until oven is heated.
**At this point, you can put one ball of dough in the fridge for later if you don't want to make two pizzas right away. It will keep for up to a week.
Empty the can of San Marzano tomatoes into a blender or food processor. Pulse for 5–10 seconds, until nearly smooth with some chunks remaining.
Place dough on floured work surface and roll out to approximately 1/8–1/4 inch. When the pizza is the size and shape you want, cover your pizza peel with a thin layer of cornmeal (about 1 tablespoon) and place dough on top of that. Don't forget to put cornmeal on your pizza peel, or the dough won't slide off when it's time to go in the oven!
Top the pizza dough with 1–2 cups of cheese, then use a spoon to dollop half the tomato sauce unevenly over the cheese.
**You can save the leftover tomato sauce in the fridge for later, along with the rest of the dough.
Transfer pizza from pizza peel to hot stone. Set oven to "Broil" on high.
Cook for 6–8 minutes, watching pizza carefully to make sure it doesn't burn. The edges should be golden or dark brown, and only a little bit black (according to Frank).
Remove from oven and wait 5–10 minutes for pizza to cool. Cut into triangular slices (never squares, says Frank). Frank also likes to add some Italian seasonings on top of the sauce at this point, but I prefer the plain tomato pie. Serve and enjoy!