Tomato pie isn’t tomato pie. That is, it is not like cherry pie or apple pie. It is essentially pizza without cheese. It might be more appropriate to call it tomato sauce pie. And it is a delicacy in Philadelphia.
We sampled tomato pie at Joe’s Pizza at 122 South 16th Street on The Flavors of Philly, a walking tour crafted for visitors who would like to eat at locals’ favorite places where they can taste regional foods. One can expect a stop for tomato pie and other Philly favorites, including cheese steak, pretzels and a few sweets. More specific culinary treks offered by City Food Tours focus on individual neighborhoods.
Before we dined on tomato pie, guide Judy Beck gave us the lowdown on the proper way to take it in. One does not pick up a slice of tomato pie as one would a slice of common pizza. One places his plate underneath the piece and slides it onto the plate. Trying to pick up a piece of tomato pie in the usual way will likely result in a plate of tomato sauce and a handful of naked dough.
The first taste of tomato pie is bizarre for one who has never indulged in it. It tasted better than I thought a pizza sans cheese would, and as we ate, Beck filled us in on the long and ambiguous history of this delicacy. Its roots are in Sicily and at first, the sweet San Marzano tomato was used. Two cities other than Philadelphia claim to be its American birthplace: Trenton, N.J., and Utica, N.Y.
The truth isn’t known, but it is believed the birth of tomato pie dates to the turn of the last century. Today, several restaurants have their own version of tomato pie. But don’t expect an entire one if you are in a rush. Because the dough needs to rise, it takes two hours to make a complete pie.
While walking from one stop to the next, Beck fed us knowledge on the non-food-related landmarks we passed. That’s a 37-foot high statue of William Penn atop City Hall. When it was built, a gentlemen’s agreement was accepted that no Philadelphia building would surpass the top of Penn’s hat. After the taller skyscraper at One Liberty Place was built in 1987, no Philly professional sports team won a championship. The phenomenon was tagged the Curse of Billy Penn. Then in June 2007, a statuette of Penn was affixed to the top of the Comcast Center, now the city’s tallest building. Just over a year later, the Phillies won the World Series.
Philadelphians eat pretzels like New Yorkers eat bagels, Beck said as we stepped inside the Philly Pretzel Factory at 1532 Sansom St. Pretzels are meant to be eaten on the run, or the walk, not sitting at a table. Eating a pretzel without mustard is like scarfing down a hot fudge sundae without the hot fudge. The Philly Pretzel Factory offers three kinds of mustard: mild; spicy brown, packed with mustard seed; and hot, mixed with horseradish.
Mild was hot enough for me, and Beck let us in on a common misconception. The pretzel was born not in Germany but in Italy about 1610, when monks shaped the first pretzels according to a then popular praying position, with arms rather than hands folded. The three pretzel holes represent the Holy Trinity. Today, the Philly Pretzel Factory hand-twists 10,000 to 15,000 — that is not a typo — pretzels every day.
On our way to our next stop, we ducked into Macy’s Center City, which might seem unremarkable except that it was once the home of the famous Wanamaker’s Department Store, whose fame might not quite be up there with the Liberty Bell but still ranks as one of the city’s best known landmarks. For one thing, it was one of the nation’s first department stores. And it boasts a large bronze eagle, a relic of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair purchased by the store and installed in the central, marble atrium.
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