When Brooklyn bred business consultant Mike Giammarino moved to Philadelphia in the mid-’80s, his family would follow the same routine when they came from New York to visit: They’d call and order a couple pies from Russo’s, Giammarino’s South Philly neighborhood pizzeria, when they were on their way, pick them up and bring the to the house for lunch or dinner.
Decades later, Giammarino is the one making pizzas, in the same Carlisle-and-Jackson corner that Russo’s inhabited for more than a dozen years.
Well, it’s not pizza exactly that’s emerging from the oven custom tucked in the back of this white-tiled nostalgia factory. Giammarino specializes in tomato pie, stated explicitly in the full name of his three-month-old, cash-only business: Gennaro’s Tomato Pie. But his thin-crust, 16-inch lovelies are not what passes for tomato pie in the ’45 and ’48 zips (see: the sauce-only squares of Cacia’s and New York Bakery), nor are they of Northeast Philly tomato-pie school (see: hidden cheeses at Tony’s and Santucci’s). They’re something else, something special, something I can taste right now as I type these words, more than 24 hours after polishing off three Gennaro’s pies with a couple of pals.
“I looked at what we were doing in the ’40s, which was an old-fashioned tomato pie,” says Giammarino. “I wanted this business to be distinct, not another Lombardi’s,” his family’s high-end pizzeria in Manhattan, whose Rittenhouse offshoot was demolished in 2005 to make way for the 10 Rittenhouse condos. Plans were drawn up to reopen, but Giammarino’s father’s heart issues shelved them until last year.
“My dad was feeling better and we wanted to expand out again,” he explains. “We started looking in Center City, but quickly realized the rents were so high it would make it almost impossible.” They cast their real-estate net wider, eventually settling on a location in New Jersey. They were in lease negotiations there when the old Russo’s opened up: “It just made sense as a first location. It would be easy to handle and it’s close to my house,” important considering Giammarino still spends two nights a week in New York. So he moved in.
It’s hard to imagine Gennaro’s, which is named for the man who founded Lombardi’s in 1897, anywhere else than this cozy 34-seat corner space kitted out with WWII model planes, sepia-toned family portraits and a chandelier as intricately beaded as a frock of Lady Mary’s. Sweet waitresses with chaste white uniforms and Noxema-commercial faces balanced the bubbling, blistered pies with a ballerina’s grace, weaving through the chrome-plated red Formica tables and teeny wood chairs in a packed dining room that felt like an oven set to warm.
Meanwhile, pickups trickled through the front door, proceeding to the marble-topped counter in the back, beneath a vintage ad for Prince Albert cigarettes. It’s a carefully timed flow: Giammarino takes only a set number of orders per 15-minute block and gives customers an exact time to collect their pies, preventing (a) kitchen backup and (b) a bottleneck of hungry locals in sweatpants and puffy coats hovering over the tables like Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men.
The kitchen entrance on Carlisle may eventually become the pizza pickup point, though Giammarino isn’t sure how neighbors would feel about that. And he’s trying to be a good neighbor — he and his family still live in the ’hood — cleaning the sidewalks daily (unlike the run of shops that lived here between Russo’s closing and Gennaro’s opening), keeping his security lights on overnight and shunning delivery that would clog the streets.
Delivery would also “compromise the quality of the pies,” Giammarino says, the main reason he’s decided against it when it could easily double his business. “I can control the pizza in house. When I give it to you I know it will be perfect. With delivery, you lose control.”
I respect that. And truth is, you want to experience Gennaro’s tomato pie in its natural habitat, seconds from the oven, its pools of molten whole-milk mozzarella and herbaceous, coarsely ground, raw tomato sauce swirled together like a Van Gogh landscape. Be prepared to burn the roof of your mouth. Be prepared to not care.
The vivid sauce and liquid cheese rush the tongue like fans onto the field after a championship victory. It’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, together forming something greater than the proverbial sum of its parts. Giammarino explains the sensation: “Each bite, you’re getting cheese or sauce or both. It keeps your taste buds constantly activated.”
There are toppings for $2 and $3 extra, the best among them Grandmom Grace’s mini meatballs, so tender they’re held together by ricotta and wishes. But Gennaro’s identity is best expressed in the simple formula of tomato, cheese and dough. Oregano and red pepper if you must.
Blanketed in ricotta and mozzarella, the garlicky white pie impressed me less than the tomato pie, but that’s like saying I like $50 bills less than $100 bills. A smattering of starters (sweet roasted red peppers, an antipasto with lemony grilled artichokes, a chilled Caesar salad that doesn’t wimp out on the anchovy) gave us something to pick on while waiting for the main attractions. Throwback cakes like pineapple upside-down and cookies-and-cream icebox gave us something to think about all the way home.
Giammarino sent out these and other sweets in a complimentary sampler to the table. But it wasn’t because he knew my mission, why I’d ordered three large pies and nearly every appetizer at his charming pizzeria. No, it was because Gennaro’s specializes in something else besides tomato pie: old-school hospitality.
GENNARO’S TOMATO PIE | 1429 Jackson St., 215-463-5070, gennaros-tomatopie.com. Dinner, Wed.-Thu. and Sun., 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Appetizers, $7.50-$11; pizzas, $12-$18; desserts, $5-$6.50.