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Gennaro's twirls pizza-making around

How can it be so easy for Mike Giammarino to channel history through a simple round of baked dough?

Tomato pie with pepperoni as served at Gennaro's Tomato Pie, 1429 Jackson St., Philadelphia, April 18, 2013.  ( DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer )
Tomato pie with pepperoni as served at Gennaro's Tomato Pie, 1429 Jackson St., Philadelphia, April 18, 2013. ( DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer )Read more

How can it be so easy for Mike Giammarino to channel history through a simple round of baked dough?

It's as though these signature "tomato pies," as he's calling them, were the pizza equivalent of the antique radios hung on the subway-tiled walls of Gennaro's, his tiny corner BYOB at Jackson and Carlisle Streets. With an original Nipper the RCA dog statue perched atop one with his floppy ear cocked, those radios rebroadcast original big-band-swing shows to a bustling room that, with its war bond posters, marinara-red Formica tables, and World War II-era Mustang model plane dangling overhead, looks like it was lifted in mint condition from 1940s New York.

I lift a slice of red pie, its heat-charred crust dusting my fingertips with tawny flour, lean in to take a bite, and find the taste is just as transporting. Crackle it snaps, the bottom layer of sweet mozzarella protecting the microscopic-thin crust. The spots of crushed tomatoes spooned on top between clouds of mozzarella have almost caramelized from quick exposure to the naked heat, bright and vivid, tangy sweet. I go back for another bite, then another, savoring the chewy, rustic, well-salted crust.

And I have to wonder: Is this how pizza really tasted when Gennaro Lombardi was tossing pies in the 1940s at his iconic pizzeria, Lombardi's, in Lower Manhattan? If so, I couldn't imagine - as we devoured once slice after another - why anyone changed.

Giammarino is in a position to know. He's the current owner of Lombardi's, since his father bought it in 1994 from his pal, Gennaro's grandson (also named Gennaro "Jerry" Lombardi.) As for the restaurant's timeline, the 1940s, Giammarino says, was the era just before the cheese and tomato sauce swapped places in the architecture of American pizza.

It was a style very much worth resurrecting for Giammarino's return to Philadelphia with Gennaro's Tomato Pie. Of course, much has changed in Philly's pizza landscape since 2005, the year Giammarino closed his much-loved Rittenhouse Square branch of Lombardi's to make way for demolition and the construction of 10 Rittenhouse.

Trading in that Lombardi's for Serafina in the new building didn't exactly work out favorably for Rittenhouse Square. But our pizza options have never been better in the rest of the city, with a growing roster of new Neapolitan-style destinations, whose wood-fired ovens turn out buoyant crusts topped with truffled cheeses and delicate, seasonal toppings.

What Giammarino saw missing, though, was a niche that fell somewhere between those highbrow newcomers and the umpteen low-grade slice shops that still dot our storefronts like an oily-cheese, floppy-crusted blight to remind us of our sorry pizza past.

Viewing the relative high cost of re-creating and maintaining Lombardi's coal oven, though, Giammarino believed a slightly different, more affordable concept would best suit our recovering economy - and his expansion hopes. Not counting toppings, the pizzas at Gennaro's run up to $18 for a plain 16-inch large white pie (the red is $3 less) that's easily enough for two. And what a taste.

The key?

The rent is lower, of course, at his 34-seater in lower South Philly, which already had some good pizza karma from its long run as the square-pied Russo's. But Giammarino's "Holy Grail" is his custom-made, high-tech oven, with a computer board and brick-lined walls that heat from the bottom as well as the top, and mimic the blistering of a coal hearth for a fraction of the price.

With our eyes closed, the tastes and textures are there: "It's like Lombardi's came back!" says my gleeful son, who knows the taste.

One could argue, of course, that these computer-assisted pies are as genuine (or not) as those big-band shows being resurrected from the great beyond via satellite radio piped through vintage speakers.

But that specific flavor, an elusive New York spirit of rustic, roasty crust and tangy sauce - is absolutely present in Gennaro's pies (even if Philadelphians, he said, tend to prefer their pizzas less burnt.) And Giammarino has smartly kept the menu simple to emphasize that this operation is all about doing the familiar basics right. All the better if Giammarino realizes his goal of some day cloning Gennaro's for a suburban audience.

Because the dough gets more resting time than at Lombardi's, it actually develops more complexity. And the cheese-on-the-bottom technique allows for a more equal ratio of mozzarella-to-tomato, and thus a lighter slice. So the ingredients tend to pop: the pepperoni puckering into juicy char-rimmed cups; the ricotta-bound pork-and-beef meatballs more a choice for tender comfort; the oil-cured olives adding extra black piquance; the sauce more aromatic than usual; the cheese surprisingly milky sweet.

I get an especially sweet richness from the ricotta on the "white pies," a "wet" ricotta (versus the more common, drier "impastatas") whose creaminess flows nicely between mozzarella with garlic and oregano. Lighter toppings are best, like the sheer ribbons of pancetta, the crunch of red onions, or sautéed garlic spinach that avoids being too garlicky.

The only topping I didn't love was Gennaro's sausage, which, sliced into long ribbons, lacked the toothy satisfaction of thicker chunks.

The focused menu could seem limited to some. And for that matter, the cash-only, no-reservations, closed-Monday-and-Tuesday policies may be just inconvenient enough that some might be deterred.

But with Phillies games in full swing a few blocks south, I can see Gennaro's as the perfect casual pregame destination. And while the non-pizza offerings are few, they are also spot-on.

The antipasto plate tastes like the best of an Italian import-export shop, with trumpet-shaped curls of good soppresata and mortadella ringing meaty olives, sharp provolone, grilled baby artichokes, crimson roast peppers, and addictive, garlicky rounds of baked dough. The house salad is deceptive, so simple with iceberg lettuce and a homey white-vinegar dressing, but sparked with the bitter intrigue of Belgian endive and shaved fennel.

And once you're done with the savories, Gennaro's also has a handful of worthy desserts. Like those tomato pies, they are distinct throwback relics, from the fizzy chocolate egg cream (made with no eggs, of course, but authentic Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup) to a fluffy, rich sponge cake layered with chocolate cream. The soakingly moist pineapple upside-down cake could have been swiped from a church bake sale. But the menu says these sweets are "house made" and I'm willing to say they're legit.

Giammarino really does appear to have captured the secret of channeling these authentic tastes of history to present-day South Philadelphia, where they don't seem one bit out of context. I can't help wondering, though, how genuine they'll taste if they ever do appear some day soon in a suburban strip mall near you?


Mike Giammarino discusses Gennaro's Tomato Pie at Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at EndText