It was a tough decision. Should my cousins and I eat at the original De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pies in Trenton, or try the new branch in Robbinsville? My cousins seemed to think the original had more character, but the new De Lorenzo’s had Sam Amico, the founding family’s preeminent pizzaiolo. We debated by e-mail in the weeks leading up to my visit, and all day leading up to our adventure. Finally, we decided on an equitable plan: eat pizza back-to-back at each branch and compare the two.
We decided to start in Trenton. We exited Route 1, passing the Trenton Industrial Center on our left and New Jersey State Prison on our right, the prison walls topped with concertina wire. Cheery. My cousin Leonora said, “There are few things more depressing than prison, and one of them is Trenton.” We saw both.
My cousins explained the sad story about Trenton’s demise. Roebling Steel Factory was an industry bright spot, where they built the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling closed, and Trenton lost its working class. Jobs fled Chambersburg, as the neighborhood’s called. Now the factory is being redeveloped, including Roebling Market, but Chambersburg still has a long climb ahead.
We pulled up to De Lorenzo’s. People sat on their stoops of their row houses, but didn’t seem to pay much attention to us. The pizzeria dates to 1947 in its current location. Sam Amico’s grandfather Chick De Lorenzo started the pizzeria with his brothers in the ‘30s, on the corner. Chick’s descendant Eileen Amico was in the house and was happy to discuss the restaurant’s history. De Lorenzo’s has a dozen tables, with wood walls, plenty of photos of singers and sports stars. The seating: wood and red leather booths. There’s no bathroom, so prepare accordingly.
De Lorenzo’s young pizzaiolos were friendly and well informed about their place in the pizza pantheon. They enjoyed discussing other famous pizzerias, including Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix and Di Fara in Brooklyn.
We still had one more meal to come, so we limited ourselves to a large half-sausage, half-plain pie. The big question: What’s the difference between pizza and tomato pie? Eileen explained, “In the neighborhood, that’s just what they called them.” She said that the cheese goes down first, with tomato sauce on top and less cheese than normal. Eileen uses fresh crushed California tomatoes, because they’re consistent, unlike Jersey tomatoes. The dough’s made fresh daily. Nothing’s ever frozen.
When asked whether it’s the people or the oven that makes their pizza so special, Eileen said, “It’s the ingredients.” Bottom line: the pizza was incredible, with scintillating sauce and a thin, crisp crust. The chunks of sausage were luscious, but the pizza didn’t need any help from the meat.
My cousin Jimmy said there have been times where they have been so busy, they took the phone off the hook. Given our experience, it’s understandable.
We passed by Barbero Italian bakery. Two images on the side of the building convinced me it was worth stopping the car: the numbers “1925” and a cartoon Italian baker in a towering white toque.
“Trenton’s Tiffany in Baked Products” was about to close, but the counterwoman was still willing to pipe mini cannoli (2 for $1) with creamy ricotta and chocolate chips. The pastry shell featured craters that looked like they belong on the surface of the moon.
On the way out of town, we drove by another De Lorenzo’s Pizza, owned by Eileen’s cousins, which my cousin Connie called “ordinary.”
Robbinsville was a rural farming community. Now it’s a sprawling insta-town with look-alike tract homes. The five-month-old De Lorenzo’s sprouted up in a commercial strip. It has a sleek black awning. Inside, there are framed B&W photos of the Chambersburg original, yellow and brick walls, booths with red and black strips and flat screen TVs. There are even modern conveniences like ceiling fans and bathrooms, which were noticeably absent from the original. Hosts and waiters wear button down shirts and ties, which would never happen in Trenton.
Based on our waiter’s recommendation, we ordered a Large Tomato Pie ($14) with garlic, pepperoni and sausage ($1 each). The sauce and cheese were identical to the Chambersburg original, but the most important element fell short: the crust. It was pretty good, but overcooked and too dry. The meats were very good, and the finely chopped garlic was a nice addition.
Large White Pizza ($14) with spinach and onions ($1 each) was flavorful, but the crust was similarly unspectacular.
After our meal, I spoke with Eileen’s son Sam Amico as he pulled pies from the oven. When making pizzas, he keeps things simple. His sauce consists of tomato and a little bit of salt, that’s it. He relies on the natural sweetness of the tomato.
I asked why his pizzas are so special, and he said, “I used to think it was the oven, until I came here and the crust was just as crisp and good. Now I think it’s the person making it. You’ve got to have the love…The best places are family run, passed down from generation to generation.” No argument.
After eating at both De Lorenzo’s, all four of us were unanimous in our opinions. The original was superior, not only for the pizza, but also for the atmosphere and sense of history. The Robbinsville branch is a solid neighborhood spot, but it isn’t producing destination pizza.