‘Tis the season for tomato pie; just choose a style

July 28, 2023

If you’ve been to Lloyd’s Market in Lewes lately, you may have seen the signs advertising “tomato pie.” Although I immediately thought of pizza, the picture on the flyer shows a rectangular, rimmed layer of dough topped with brilliant red sauce, not a round, cheese-topped pie. Of course, we bought two slices (see photo) and returned home to conduct a taste test, followed by more in-depth research.

Like so many foods we encounter in Delaware, you can see influences from both New Jersey and Pennsylvania cooking traditions. According to food historians, tomato pie is a focaccia-like dough baked in rectangular sheet pans, topped with chunky tomato gravy and served at room temperature. Its origins are connected to Italian immigrants from Sicily who settled in Philadelphia, numbering more than 76,000 in the city by 1910. Similar to Sicilian-style pizza, Pennsylvania’s tomato pie quickly became a bakery staple.

This version doesn’t have the familiar topping of cheese we find on pizza, and neither does the Trenton style, which became popular in New Jersey. While the Philadelphia tomato pie is thick, Trenton tomato pie is round, thin-crusted and includes a layer of cheese between the crust and the topping of tomato sauce. Another difference is the flavor profile of the sauces, with Philadelphia’s herbal savoriness contrasting with Trenton’s slight sweetness.

Both of these versions of tomato pie differ dramatically from what has become known as Southern tomato pie. This style starts with a flaky pie crust instead of a yeast-raised crust. Simple toppings are replaced by a creamy filling that combines cheese, mayonnaise, herbs and tomato slices. To prevent sogginess, the tomatoes best suited for this recipe are the less-juicy plum or Roma varieties.

A quick search of the internet will yield dozens of recipes for all three types of tomato pie, along with assertions from a number of restaurants claiming to be the source of the iconic dish, starting with Iannelli's Famous Brick Oven Bakery in Philly and Giuseppe “Joe” Papa, who served tomato pies on South Clinton Avenue in Trenton.

There are numerous variations on the Southern tomato pie, such as which type of tomato (heirlooms are a favorite) and cheese to select (cheddar is typical, although you’ll sometimes see recipes call for gouda or mascarpone). This dish is akin to a quiche, with a creamy, tender texture. No matter which geographical region determines how you make your tomato pie, all the choices are delicious. 

Philadephia Tomato Pie*

3 1/2 C flour
2 t salt
1 t rapid-rise yeast
2 T olive oil
1 1/4 C water
2 T olive oil
2 T butter
4 grated garlic cloves
1 T oregano
1 t red pepper flakes
28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes
salt, to taste
3 T olive oil

Crust: whisk together flour, salt and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add olive oil and water. Knead on low speed just until dough comes together, about 3 minutes. Let dough rest for 10 minutes, then knead once more on low speed for 10 minutes. Remove bowl from stand; cover tightly with plastic wrap. Place bowl in refrigerator and allow dough to rise for at least 8 hours and up to 24. 

Sauce: heat olive oil and butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high. When butter is melted, add garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring constantly, until softened and fragrant, about 1 minute. Roughly chop tomatoes in a food processor; add to saucepan along with juices. Bring to a bare simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until rich and thick, about 45 minutes. Season to taste with salt. Allow to cool in fridge while dough rises.

Assembly: 2 hours before baking, remove dough from fridge. Generously grease the inside of a 13- by-18-inch rimmed baking sheet with 3 T olive oil; set aside. Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. Form into flat ball and transfer to baking sheet. Using your hands, coat the ball on all sides with olive oil. Loosely cover the baking sheet with plastic and let dough rise in a warm spot for 1 hour. Gently stretch and push the dough into the corners and edges of the pan. Cover loosely and let rise for 1 hour longer. 

Baking: preheat oven to 450 F. Use your hands to create a ridge about 1-inch wide around the edge of the pan. Spread sauce generously over dough. Bake until edges are light golden brown and crisp, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing. *Adapted from Serious Eats.

Trenton Tomato Pie

1 thin-crust pizza shell
1 T olive oil
1 1/2 C shredded mozzarella cheese
28-oz can San Marzano tomatoes 
1 t sugar 
1 t basil
salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 500 F. Lightly brush the pizza shell with olive oil. Scatter surface evenly with shredded mozzarella; set aside. Combine the tomatoes, sugar and basil in the bowl of a blender or food processor. Pulse to create a chunky sauce; season to taste with salt. Spread the sauce over the cheese. Bake until edges of crust are deep golden, about 12 to 15 minutes.

Southern Tomato Pie

1 flaky pie crust
4 ripe tomatoes
1 t salt
1/4 C chopped basil leaves
1/2 C thin-sliced green onion
1 minced garlic clove
1 C grated mozzarella cheese
1 C grated white cheddar cheese
3/4 C mayonnaise
1/4 t white pepper

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with paper towel. Slice the tomatoes and arrange in a single layer on the paper towel. Sprinkle with salt and allow the tomatoes to sit for about 10 minutes. Line a pie plate with the crust, crimp edges and pierce the bottom with a fork. Bake for 10 minutes. Combine the basil, green onion and garlic in a small bowl; set aside. Stir together cheeses, mayonnaise and pepper; set aside. Layer half the tomato slices in the par-baked pie shell and sprinkle with half the basil mixture. Place the remaining tomatoes over the first layer and sprinkle with remaining basil mixture. Spread the cheese mixture evenly over the tomatoes. Decrease oven temperature to 350 F and bake pie until top is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before slicing.


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