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Tomato pie is a Philly staple

Vincent Iannelli (top) is third-generation owner of Iannelli’s Famous Brick Oven Bakery in Philly

Chris Malloy for The Boston Globe

Vincent Iannelli (top) is third-generation owner of Iannelli’s Famous Brick Oven Bakery in Philly

PHILADELPHIA — Tomato pie, a Philly staple, is usually made here with bread dough, without mozzarella, at old-time bakeries in longstanding neighborhoods.

The giant rectangular pie at Sarcone’s Bakery is an 18-by-22½-inch crust that is red with tomato sauce, nut-brown on the naked rim, sprinkled with Parmesan, and cut into 15 equally appealing squares. Almost everyone in Philly has a favorite piece. The choices are corner, middle, or side.

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“Corner,” says Louis Sarcone Jr., fourth-generation owner. “I like the crust, so I like the corner slice.”

“Middle or end,” says Vincent Iannelli, third-generation owner of Iannelli’s Famous Brick Oven Bakery. Here, the choice can be easier. The 18-by-24-inch “gravy pie” (old-timers use names like church pie, square pizza, red pizza, granny pizza, and red pie) is halved lengthwise, then cut crosswise three times for a total of eight colossal slices. With a pie divided like this, there are no crust-less middle pieces. But you still get the soft, gravy-soaked bites that are the reason to choose middle in the first place.

Like pizza, tomato pie first appeared in the US around the turn of the 20th century, when the tide of Italian immigrants was strongest. Many credit Lombardi’s Pizza, which opened in New York in 1905, with being America’s first pizzeria. Tomato pie traces its origins in Philly to at least 1910, when Iannelli’s opened. “There used to be bakeries on every corner,” says Sarcone, whose great-grandparents opened Sarcone’s in 1918, “and these bakeries served tomato pie.” Though most of the bakeries are gone, you can still find tomato pie, made with hearty gravy, in the city of Philadelphia and the outskirts.

Chris Malloy for The Boston Globe

Tomato pie at Sarcone’s.

The best tomato pies have thick bready crust, a generous layer of tomato sauce (or “gravy,” as it’s known in South Philly), and are cooked in a brick oven. They are served steaming hot and also at room temperature. The price is $2 to $3 a slice, or $20 for a whole pie.

“My tomato pie picks up the flavor of the brick oven,” Sarcone says. “It tastes like you are dipping bread in gravy.” Sarcone starts with his bread dough, which has “malt, salt, and no sugar.” He ages the dough for six hours before cooking. It goes into one of a pair of connected oil-fueled ovens, behemoths that, together, are more than twice as long as a tennis court is wide. Soon, Sarcone takes out the plain dough without toppings using a 15-foot peel, flips it, adds gravy, and returns the pie to the oven. “This is the way my grandfather and great-grandmother used to do it,” he says.

A few blocks away, Iannelli has similar respect for tradition. “We’ve always done tomato pie, but it has been altered a notch from one family member to the next,” he says. “I kept the same recipe my grandmother instilled in me.”

Chris Malloy for The Boston Globe

Louis Sarcone Jr. (right, with Louis Sarcone III) is fourth-generation owner of Sarcone’s, also in Philly.

Iannelli’s version starts with a dough he also uses for his stromboli and zeppoli. The crust, which tastes wholesome, like homemade bread, is curled up at the edges to keep the gravy pooled in the middle. The dense gravy is the same sauce Iannelli puts on his pasta. He says, “The gravy makes the pie.”

Sarcone’s tomato pie has a crust firm on the bottom and soft where it melds with gravy on top, making for heavenly middle bites. But Sarcone prefers the crust and, hence, the bready corner slice. “When’s the last time you had a crust with flavor?” he says. “With my tomato pie, you want to eat the crust first.”

Even when the gravy is so good?

“Some people will call up and ask for six slices of tomato pie, all middles. There’s crust people, then there’s juicy people. Everyone has their preference.”

That leaves one head-scratching question: corner, middle, or side?

Sarcone’s Bakery, 758 South 9th St., Philadelphia, 215-922-0445, www.sarconesbakery.com

Iannelli’s Famous Brick Oven Bakery, 1155 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia, 215-468-0720, www.iannellisbakery.com

Chris Malloy can be reached at chrisamalloy@gmail.com.
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