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.
For years, all one Philadelphian had to say to others was, “Meet me at the eagle,” and everyone knew what he meant. The structure is also home to another St. Louis World’s Fair antique, the world’s largest operational pipe organ, originally built with 10,000 pipes and today boasting more than 28,000. It is played twice daily and is the major feature of the multi-glittering Christmas Light Show, narrated by Julie Andrews.
What about the famed Philly cheese steak? We heard a chorus of clinking spatulas as we stepped inside Zio’s Brickoven Pizza at 111 South 13th St., as well known for their cheese steaks as their pizza. We had a choice of ours with or without onions and all but two of our group of about a dozen, myself being one, ordered onions. The story of the cheese steak sandwich goes like this. Around 1930, a local hot dog vendor named Pat Oliverieri substituted strips of steak in a bun when he became tired of eating hot dogs for lunch every day. A cab driver passing by picked one up and before long, word of mouth served as the best advertiser.
Oliverieri’s steak sandwiches were gobbled up by locals, although amazingly it took 20 years until an entrepreneur added cheese to the concoction. The most common cheeses over the years have been American, provolone and Cheez Whiz. In fact, Cheez Whiz is the most popular topping. No one said it was a gourmet meal.
Let’s not forget dessert. Our last stop was the Reading Terminal Market, frequented by visitors as much as locals. Most emporia here are mom and pop operations, many run by Amish who rise around 4 a.m. to be here at the 8 a.m. opening (9 a.m. on Sunday). Only 20 percent of the food sold here is allowed to be processed. Our two stops took us to Chocolate by Mueller, where we were treated with chocolate covered pretzels, but also where chocolate goodies come in eclectic shapes, including human body parts: “I thought you said a dozen noses,” accompanies chocolate-shaped noses; “You take my breath away” is the message that comes with chocolate shaped lungs. We finished off our epicurean repast with double dipped chocolate cake truffles at the Flying Monkey Bakery.
So come to Philly, enjoy the local cuisine, but keep your restraint at home.
IF YOU GO
The Flavors of Philly tour is offered daily, 1:30 p.m. to 4. Prices: $39 per adult, $29 ages 10-14, not including gratuity; the tour is too fatiguing for most children under 10. Other specialized tours, offered less frequently, include one devoted to beer and cheese and another to ethnic foods of south Philadelphia. Reservations are mandatory and can be made at zerve.com or by calling (800) 979-3370. Depending on the tour, expect 10 to 30 minutes total walking (a half mile to one and a half miles). There are several stops along the way, and on the Flavors of Philly tour the longest walking stretch lasts about 15 minutes. Some places are wheelchair accessible; for those that are not, the guides will make necessary accommodations. Private tours are offered as well. Information: www.cityfoodtours.com
Downtown lodging: Loew’s Philadelphia Hotel, 1200 Market St., (215) 627-1200, doubles: $159-$299 www.loewshotels.com/philadelphia; Best Western Center City Hotel, 501 North 22nd St., (215) 568-8300, doubles: $99-$199 www.bestwestern.com; Thomas Bond House (12-room bed and breakfast), 129 South 2nd St., (215) 923-8523, rooms: $125-$190, breakfast included, continental on weekdays, full Saturday and Sunday, www.thomasbondhousebandb.com.
Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975 and received an MFA in professional writing in 1977 from the University of Southern California. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at [email protected].