Shocking news: In an attempt to steal the throne of OLDEST PIZZERIA IN US from Lombardi's in New York, Papa's Tomato Pies in Trenton has claimed this title for themselves. Fifty-four years ago, when the New York Times Magazine covered Lombardi's, the author wrote that nobody disputed [Gennaro Lombardi's] claim to having the oldest pizzeria in the United States. (Mitgang, Herbert. "Pizza a la Mode: In many variations, Italy's famous pie now rivals the hot dog in popularity." New York Times Magazine, 12 Feb. 1956).
Here's Papa's owner Nick Azzaro's side of things: Lombardi's closed for several years and moved down the street. (The Times' "Diner's Journal" blog ran this story in July 2011, and included video coverage. Here it is.)
True, Lombardi's did close and then reopen in a different space (former bakery, old coal oven) a block and half away from the original. But isn't it still Lombardi's? Same dough, same ingredients on top (Italian San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella from Joe's Dairy on Sullivan Street).
Besides, it's not just a recipe -- it's a process. Genarro's grandson, Gerry, who grew up in Lombardi's and was proprietor of the restaurant after his grandmother passed away, contributed the pizza knowhow for the 1994 reopening.
Just the other day, Motorino in Brooklyn closed because its building was falling apart. And M. Wells, a celebrated diner in Long Island City (it earned two stars from Sam Sifton in the Times) announced it was closing because the landlord demands "included astronomically high rent, a short length of lease and a strict buy-out clause." Motorino Brooklyn and M. Wells both vow to reopen. In other words, the restaurant business — tough already — is even tougher in NYC.
I haven't been yet to Papa's — and I'd love to go — not because it may be America's oldest pizzeria but rather, because folks in Trenton awesomely call pizza, tomato pie.
I got close once: lunching at Jo Jo's Tavern in Mercerville, NJ — four miles from Papa's. At Jo Jo's they call it pizza, but when I asked the waitress what she calls it, and she said, tomato pie.
"What about this cheeseless Clams Casino pizza you have," I asked her. "What do you call that?" "That's a tomato pie too," she said. ("How is it?" I asked. "Amazing," she said. Next time!)
Truth told, I don't know which pizzeria is the oldest. If Papa's can claim it is older because Lombardi's switched locations and was closed for 8 years, can't Totonno's can claim that Papa's isn't oldest because Papa s has changed locations twice, while Totonno's has not moved from 1524 Neptune Avenue since 1924? Extenuating circumstances.
Anyway, does it matter? I prefer to base judgement on a bunch of P's: Personality, Presence, Perseverance, and of course, Pizza. Lombardi's, check. Totonno's, check. Papa's, (based on faith, until I go there) check!
The top photo of Lombardi's, c1920s or '30s, courtesty Lombardi's.