Road Trip

Gut Instinct: Papa's Knows Best

Papa's Tomato Pies, the pride of Trenton, New Jersey. Dubious signage, delicious food. Photo: Flickr/gopf2222

After an exhausting weekend spent exploring the power of whiskey and one-dollar bills during my Philadelphia bachelor party, the last thing I wanted to do was spend Sunday afternoon shoving my face into a hot, oozy pie.

"I think we need to get you a tomato pie," my friend Will said, knee-steering our car from the City of Brotherly Love at a speed that Indianapolis 500 aficionados would appreciate. "It's what you eat in Trenton, New Jersey." He grabbed his BlackBerry and clacked a query into Google. The results unfurled instantly. Phone calls were made as Will rocketed down the interstate. "Are you open?" he inquired of Papa's Tomato Pies. A pause. "Beautiful," Will said in his honeyed lawyer voice, ordering a large pie. "We'll be there in 15 minutes to pick it up." He killed the call. Then he sped up, Trenton's skyline approaching as quickly as a camera's zoom lens.

Perhaps I should pause to explain. A tomato pie is not a savory summertime treat. It's pizza. Then again, it's pizza in reverse. To create a Trenton tomato pie, the ripe red berries of the nightshade family are crushed, not turned into sauce. A thin crust is topped with olive oil and a smattering of cheese, and then the chunky tomatoes and a finishing oily drizzle. Finally, the pie is cooked till it's as crunchy as a Saltine cracker.

In Trenton, the major practitioners are De Lorenzo's and Papa's Tomato Pies (804 Chambers St., at Roebling Ave., papastomatopies.com). Since it was Father's Day, it was only fitting that we chose this paternal restaurant, opened by founder Joe Papa in 1912. Nearly a century later, Papa's is America's oldest family-owned pizza restaurant (a distinction that separates it from Lombardi's Pizza, which was founded in 1905). Today, Papa's looked every one of its 99 years. A vacant adjoining storefront had a taped-on arrow pointing to a door to the right, which was outfitted with a stained glass "P." Yellowing tape held together the awning, featuring a cartoony, mustachioed Italian chef.

Looks can be deceiving. Inside, vintage lights hung from the ceiling over wooden booths, and the walls were covered with photo collages of contented customers. We walked to the cash register and seized our pie, eager to return to the road. "Are you sure you don't want to eat here?" asked Nick Azzaro, the family's third generation of pizza makers, who runs the restaurant with son Dominic. "What's the rush?" I wanted to explain my hangover, how my head felt as it were filled with fighting feral squirrels. In short, I wanted to be in bed. "Sure, let's eat it here," Will said, before I could protest. The box was whisked to the kitchen. We slid into a booth. The pie was placed before us on a round metal sheet. The circular feast was a mosaic of vibrant red and blistered white, the edges cooked as dark as a Caribbean tan. I bit my slice. The crust crunched as if it were a kettle-cooked chip, the textural tomatoes' natural sweetness singing louder than the creamy mozzarella—a contrast to the average New York slice, where the sauce often plays second fiddle to cheese.

Azzaro, who looked a bit like Harvey Keitel wearing Christopher Lloyd's Back to the Future hair, abandoned the kitchen to observe. "What do you think?" he asked. Singular. Delicious. A different kind of pie altogether. Azzaro took the accolades in smiling stride. Then we came back with our question: What's the difference between a tomato pie and a pizza? It's a matter of cost, Azzaro explained. Used to be, every Trenton establishment slinging tomato pies had a vertical neon sign that announced the specialty. Then neon grew more expensive. Since sign makers charged by the letter, cost-conscious owners opted for the more succinct "pizza."

To me, there's still a distinction between a pizza and a pie. In lieu of pillowy dough, a cheesy blanket and a bedspread of zingy tomato, you have purer expression of its ingredients. The result is a regional delicacy good enough to make you—or was that me?—forget about a hammering hangover.

Read—and vote for—the original story at the New York Press website.

Gut Instinct: Feeling Like a Wiener

Hot dog, meet cat. Photo: Flickr/Blue Is Cool

In the darkened Connecticut sky above Interstate 95, the pink neon sign appeared as suddenly and brightly as an atomic blast. My response was Pavlovian. "Matt, we need to go to Super Duper Weenie," I told my friend, who was piloting his eggplant-hued station wagon. Along with my fiancée, we were en route to Portland, Maine, to scout locations for my coming nuptials.

"We're not going to Super Duper Weenie," my fiancée moaned. Her commitment to vegetarianism can sometimes be a buzz kill. "Let's vote," I suggested, knowing the outcome of this seemingly democratic endeavor—kind of like a Florida election. "Who wants to go to Super Duper Weenie?" Matt and I extended an arm. "Who doesn't want to hit the totally awesome, potentially lifechanging Super Duper Weenie?" "Fine," she said, resigned to defeat, "but make it quick." Following the neon sign's instructions, Matt pulled off at exit 24, in Fairfield. A right turn took us to the hot dog hut. It was as dark as a dungeon: closed for the night. We returned to the interstate, our wiener lust left unslaked. "That's too bad," my fiancée said, her condolences halfway between heartfelt and "ha-ha."

Since that failed frankfurter mission, I've become obsessed with Super Duper Weenie. A bit more than an hour's drive from New York, the restaurant remains tantalizingly close yet out of my reach: fruit on a branch high above my head. It's a destination noshery, especially given its history and pedigree. Super Duper Weenie dates to 1979, when it was a wee Connecticut food truck. In 1992, Gary Zemola acquired the truck and refurbished it, focusing on snappy wieners topped with from-scratch relishes, coleslaw, chili, red-onion sauce and sauerkraut. Fries were fresh-cut. Everything was cooked to order. Super Duper Weenie's reputation soon outstripped its teensy roving location. Portending the trend of food trucks opening stationary outposts (counting Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream and DessertTruck) the hot doggery went bricks and mortar in 1999.

Last weekend, I was finally able to make my Super Duper Weenie wish come true. Like most New Yorkers come summer, I relish every chance to escape this asphalt inferno. If I were a Rockefeller, perhaps I'd decompress on a Hamptons beach. However, this column barely covers my cell phone bill. Thus, I rely on the largesse of friends, like Wilson. Nearly a century earlier, his grandfather built a beach house in Old Saybrook, Conn., located on the glassy Long Island sound. It's a tranquil escape, a couple hours from New York as the crow flies on I-95.

"We're going to stop at Super Duper Weenie," I told Wilson and Julie, my companions on the Old Saybrook ride. "Yeah!" they cheered in unison. My fiancée? Stuck at work all weekend, meaning my carnivorous urges could run rampant. Our car crawled through New York's clogged motorways so slowly that I could've biked to Fairfield faster. In fact, pedaling would've been a wise decision: Upon arriving at the humbly appointed Super Duper Weenie, I was unable to exercise caloric restraint. The menu encompasses a half dozen irresistibly dressed dogs, including the New Englander, which is crowned with 'kraut, mustard, bacon, mustard and sweet relish; the Californian, decked out with chili, American cheese and hot relish; and the Cincinnatian, finished with chili, chopped onions and cheddar cheese.

Selecting a dog is like parents picking their favorite kid. After gnawing my nails and waiting behind a snaking line of beefy men, boisterous teens and vacationing families, I opted for a basket of skin-on fries, a New Englander and a Chicagoan. "Should two hot dogs and fries be enough?" I queried the counter gal. She appraised my five-four frame. "That should be plenty," she said. "The hot dogs are big."

Like George Washington, she could not tell a lie. A few minutes later, I received dual pillowy torpedoes packed with taut tube meat (a blend of beef and pork cocooned in natural casing) and toppings layered with surgical precession—not a sliver of slaw sat outside the griddle-warmed bun. The heaping tangle of fries was the platonic ideal of potatoes: salt-licked, celery-crunchy and golden brown. I shoved a few into my maw, then took a bite of my New Englander. It was a snappy tango of sauerkraut and relish, with bacon providing a fatty base note and mustard tying the ingredients together. Though the Windy City dog was clad in lettuce and served on a poppy seed-free bun, it was still a garden-time pleasure, packed with plenty of tomatoes, relish, pickles and a shower of celery salt.

"What do you think?" Julie asked, gnawing her New Englander.

"Just super," I said, silencing my sentiments with another bite of perfect wiener.

Read—and vote for—the original column at the New York Press website.

SweetWater Brewing's Road Trip - Beer of the Week

Thirsty yet?

Gosh, this summer heat sure is making me drink. You know what I'll have? Why, a Road Trip Ale, the newest seasonal from Atlanta's SweetWater Brewing. It's a bit of a hybrid, a mixture between an ale and a pilsner, but I think it's pure thirst-quenching delicious. Curious? Drink up my full review at Slashfood.