If you grew up with tomato pie, chances are you don’t remember the exact moment it entered your life. Rather, tomato pie slowly became associated with occasions big and small: It was an after-school snack, a treat served at birthday parties, the centerpiece of the game day spread, and a quick lunch after church.
“Growing up there was always a Corropolese tomato pie lying around,” says Matt Budenstein, co-owner of Liberty Kitchen. “We would play roller hockey as kids growing up, and one of the kids would always bring one of those old school tomato pies,” says Daniel Gutter of Circles + Squares. If you’re from the Philly area, tomato pie basically triggers a Pavlovian response that signals a good time.
Tomato pie is simple: A spongey, focaccia-like bread that’s fermented longer than your average pizza, dressed with tomato sauce, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with herbs served at room temperature. It’s made without cheese except for an optional dusting of parmesan and/or romano cheese. Traditionally, a tomato pie is square; it’s thick and doughy and has a lightly golden and crispy crust, much like a Sicilian pizza. But it’s not exactly pizza: Simply put, it’s bread with sauce, which is why tomato pies started out in Italian bakeries.
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Despite its simplicity, there is a huge range of variation and complexity. Some stray away from tradition and can be made round and can even include toppings. Every pie has, more or less, the same ingredients, but it’s the process – how long the dough is fermented, the quality of ingredients used, what’s used to season the sauce, at what point in the process the sauce is added to the pie – that makes the difference.
So you can end up with a crust that’s thick and airy, or thin and crispy, or dense and gooey; and a sauce that’s chunky or thin or savory or sweet. There’s no right answer here: All are excellent in their own right; what makes a tomato pie excellent is really a matter of personal preference.
Like so many dishes that become part of regional identities, the tomato pie was born from resourcefulness and frugality. Italian immigrants, many of whom came to Philly during the turn of the 20th Century, brought with them Neapolitan pizzas, Sicilian breads, and other regional foods. And families throughout South Philly opened up bakeries to feed the Italian immigrant communities with a comforting taste of the old country.
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The story of tomato pie goes like this: At the end of the day of baking traditional rolls and breads, Italian bakers would bake leftover dough and cover it with tomato sauce (or gravy as it is still known by many Italian American families).
And so, over 100 years, the tomato pie has become ingrained in our local traditions and daily rituals. It’s a snack. It’s a meal. It’s a part of our local heritage. Tomato pie is a true Philadelphia treasure.
Here’s where to get a slice or a whole sheet of some of Philadelphia’s best tomato pies.
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Price: Single slice $4
Joe Beddia knows dough. It’s the foundation on which every pizza is built, the vessel on which hoagies set sail, and, to Beddia, the dough is a key component to his favorite thing on the menu: the tomato pie. “In my opinion it’s about the dough and the crust. The flavor has got to be there,” says Beddia, adding that using high quality flour and fermenting the dough for just the right amount of time makes the difference in both flavor and texture. The result is a focaccia-like dough that’s higher than other tomato pies and develops a nice crust along the bottom and the sides.
Beddia is also very intentional when it comes to the sauce. “Our sauce is the same,” says Beddia. “We use Jersey fresh tomatoes, fresh garlic, sea salt, and extra virgin olive oil and when the tomato pie comes out, we do another drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of Sicilian oregano off the vine.” Served at room temperature, Beddia’s tomato pie is a delicious and thoughtful take on a Philly classic.
Price: 1/4 sheet $5, full sheet $17, supreme full sheet $23
A light dusting of Romano cheese covers a layer of sweet tomato sauce on a bed of spongy dough. The crust is slightly crunchy, but the best bite of a Corropolese tomato pie might just be that thin, gooey layer where the dough slightly absorbs the sauce. “It’s always a preference thing,” says Amanda Corropolese, manager of the Audubon location. Regardless of your personal tastes, Corropolese says you should always eat a tomato pie that’s been baked fresh that day. “It technically stays fresh for about two days, but if you can get it the day that it’s made, that’s the best,” says Corropolese.
Corropolese does more than just your standard tomato pie. They offer a wide variety of toppings ranging from pepperoni and cheese to eggplant, hot peppers, and other vegetables. But if you’re looking for a loaded tomato pie, try the Supreme, available only on Sundays. It’s their famous tomato pie topped with cheddar, sweet peppers, and pepperoni.
📍2014 Old Arch Rd # 2, Norristown; 29 Kugler Rd., Royersford; 2809 Egypt Rd., Audubon; and 180 Old Swede Rd., Douglassville; 📞 Norristown: 610-275-6664, Royersford: 610-495-8331, Audubon: 610-630-3844, Douglassville: 610-385-2333, 🌐 corropolesebakery.com, 📷 @corropolesebakery, 🕑 Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
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Price: Full sheet $22.20
Despite its name, New York Bakery has mastered the art of Philadelphia’s beloved tomato pie, and has become both a neighborhood favorite and a destination. Known as the Church Pizza, New York Bakery’s tomato pie became a favorite slice after Sunday service at the Epiphany Church down the street. The black and white building on the corner of 11th and Daily has a bit of a retro flair. They’re cranking out doughy tomato pies covered in a savory tomato sauce using equipment they’ve had since the 1950′s. The old school vibe is nostalgic, but, really, why fix something that isn’t broken.
Price: Whole pie $8.50
Father and son duo, Joe Scarpa and Sean Dundon, are part of a legacy of pizza that stretches over 50 years. Each have experience in New York City and Philadelphia-style pizzas, which comes through in their tomato pie. Their tomato pie has a thinner crust, similar to that of a Grandma-style pizza. Despite the crust being a bit thinner and crispier than most tomato pies, it’s strong enough to hold the chunky tomato sauce.
Price: Single slice $2.50, whole pie (15 slices) $25
Sarcone’s is synonymous with tomato pie. It’s hard to tell which component of this tomato pie is better: the sauce or the doughy crust. Baking bread since 1918, Sarcone’s is one of the longest running Italian bakeries in the city, so the soft, billowy dough is on point. But the heaping helping of rich sauce dusted with a handful of parmesan cheese will have you coming back for another slice. Sarcone’s has had five generations to perfect the art of the tomato pie and it shows.
Price: Single slice $3
Pizza Shackamaxon has perfected the art of a leopard-spotted pizza crust. The leopard-spotting refers to the black-dotted charing along the edges of the pizza’s crust which gets pizza lovers excited of the savory complexity it adds to the pie. And in the world of pizza making, those crispy bubbles along the crust’s edge can be pretty hard to master. The thick, slightly charred crust is one of the many notable merits of Pizza Shackamaxon’s tomato pie. Topped with dried oregano and peppery olive oil, this one is a must if you’re looking for a more herbaceous and savory slice. It’s available only Monday through Thursday, and if you’re looking for a whole pie be sure to request it at least 48 hours in advance. They’re only taking orders at the shop, in person, on the day of, but if you’re ordering four or more pizzas, reach out to them via email.
Price: Half sheet $9.25, whole sheet $17.50, whole sheet cheesesteak tomato pie $30
The Marchiano family credits their success to the family’s matriarch, Mama Nunziata, whose recipes were brought to Philadelphia from the southern Italian town of Acri, in the Cosenza province. The crust of their tomato pie is akin to a classic pizza, bready and a little chewy, and the sauce is seasoned with an aromatic blend of Italian spices. It’s perfect plain, but you can special order a cheese steak option which combines two Philly classics into one hearty dish.
Price: 1/4 sheet $4.99, 1/2 sheet $9.90, full sheet $16.50, up to +$5 for custom order
If you need a tomato pie for a party, Conshy Bakery is a good option. Not only do they make a mean tomato pie with a smooth sauce drizzled with olive oil, they’ll decorate the pie with a logo or message stenciled in garlic powder and cheese. Just be sure to give them at least 72 hours to get your custom tomato pie order together.
Price: Single slice $4.99, half pan $15, full pan $25
If you love how a tomato sauce can be both simple and complex, Carlino’s Market’s signature tomato pie will make you happy. Fresh basil is scattered generously over a sea of chunky tomato sauce that’s held in by a wall of golden crust. It’s a tomato pie that’s decadent enough to be a stand-alone meal rather than just an appetizer or a snack. Either way, this is the kind of tomato pie you get for a special occasion.
Price: Single slice $3.50, whole pie $28
It took Matt Budenstein, chef and co-owner of Liberty Kitchen, four or five years of tinkering with his tomato pie to get it just right. His pie is influenced by Corropolese, Sarcone’s and, surprisingly, Zahav. “When I started testing out the dough, it was based on a focaccia recipe from Zahav,” says Budenstein, “and over time I changed it to suit my needs. If you look at it now, you wouldn’t even recognize it as that recipe.” The result is an airy and flavorful long-fermented dough that’s slathered in a sauce made with crushed vine-ripened First Field tomatoes and Tuscan olive oil. You can order by the slice, but if you want to grab a whole pie, give them a 24-hour heads up: Just as Budenstein’s tomato pie journey was long, so is the process of making it.
Price: Whole pie $14
There are two types of tomato pies you can grab from Circles + Squares: a thick-crust square pie that’s closer to the traditional style, and a round, hand-tossed circle tomato pie that’s thin and crispy. Regardless of which style you choose, both come with a generously thick sauce seasoned with fresh garlic, oregano, salt and California extra virgin olive oil. They’re served hot, but Daniel Gutter, the mind behind the whole operation, says it’s great served at room temperature or even cold out of the fridge the next day. Gutter also recommends dressing up the tomato pie. “It could be a vessel for leftovers,” says Gutter. “Sometimes instead of making pasta, I’ll make meatballs and I’ll just serve it on top of the tomato pie on the plate. Not cook them together, just more like that’s the bread you’re using to dip into your leftovers.” For now, the only way to get your hands on some Circles + Squares is to walk up and order your pie in person. And be sure to have some bills on you because they’re cash only.
Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy award-winning host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly and of the food history series Delishtory. She is also a food and travel writer, podcaster, recipe developer, and home cook exploring the journey food takes to get to the plate.