Gaeta’s Italian Bakery
7616 Castor Avenue
Today was a good day. When you think tomato pie, the first thing that usually comes to mind is a slice of pizza with the toppings reversed: cheese on the bottom and sauce on top. What people don’t realize is that authentic tomato pies are generally square, and served cold with no cheese. If you make it correctly, it’s probably one the most delicious things you can ever put inside of your mouth. During our visit, we had the pleasure of speaking with the current owner of Gaeta’s, Frank Straface. He was so cool. He was extremely humble and really puts his heart into the product he sells. Gaeta’s has officially been slinging tomato pies at the Castor Ave location since 1976. Prior to that, they were owned and operated since the 1930’s out of Germantown under a different name. It’s safe to say that if you’re making the same product you made for the past 80+ years, you’re probably doing something right.
It’s situated in a tiny shopping center in the heart of Rhawnhurst. If you’re driving by and happen to blink, you’ll definitely miss it. (We had to circle the block twice like a bunch of idiots.) The décor on the front of the store is reminiscent of “Satrielle’s meat market” from the Sopranos. I actually had no idea this place even existed until recently. After a recent recommendation from my buddy Steve Varallo, we decided it was time for a change of pace. Some things to keep in mind before you decide to visit.
1. No delivery, no seating inside. It’s strictly take out.
2. A medium pie is big enough to feed 3 people.
3. They’re only open Wednesday through Sunday.
4. They only serve pizza and a few different types of breads.
5. They do have toppings, however, I suggest you stick with the authentic tomato pie.
6. Walk across the street and eat it in the McDonald’s parking lot, like a champion.
I have no idea how this pizza flew under the radar for so long. It was unbelievable. The sauce isn’t your average pizza sauce. The consistency is much thicker and heavy, like crushed or chopped tomatoes. It was super sweet and didn’t seem like much was done to it with the exception of a few basic seasonings. The crust was baked golden brown with a few crispy brown spots on the edges. You can really taste the olive oil painted between the crust and sauce. Let us not forgot the freshly grated parmesan cheese that was sprinkled on top. Even if tomato pie isn’t your thing, please make it a point in your near future to at least try one of these beauties. After 5 slices, I went home and watched rookie of the year with sauce stains on my fingernails. Today was definitely a good day.
The term “tomato pie” gets tossed around all to often these days, especially when a true tomato pie isn’t tossed at all. As opposed to traditional Neapolitan pizza, the style of the tomato pie is related to Sicilian pizza. Square, thick dough is usually hand flattened and topped with tomato sauce, while various bakeries put their own signature on each by including grated cheeses or toppings. Philadelphia is one of the more well known places when it comes to Sicilian tomato pie, and I’m sure everyone can remember eating a piece during some sort of family function at one point or another. With so many options, we decided to go with our guts stick with what so many of our friends recommended: Gaeta’s.
What I loved the most about Gaeta’s was the simplicity. They’re only open 5 days a week, serve little other than tomato pie, and there’s no dining area. If we had known ahead of time that toppings were an option, I’m sure we would’ve chosen a few. But like the bakery itself, we kept it simple.
I’ve had some tomato pies in my life, and most of which weren’t worth mentioning. Gaeta’s on the other hand stands above the rest. The dough was thicker in certain parts than others, leaving options for everyone regardless of crust preference. The corners were deep and doughy, but became more and more thin and we approached the slices towards the middle. Blotched, blackened ends were met with golden, flakey neighbors that (once again) would appease almost anyone. The sauce itself was reminded me of the homemade pasta sauce my grandmother used to make, only better. Thick and freshly prepared tomato sauce accounted for about 2/3 of every slice. Even when it was fresh out of the over, the consistency was thick enough that it never even had a chance to run.
As I stared at that slice of tomato pie in the McDonald’s parking lot, the sun glistening off of the speckled array of tomato skin beat into the sauce, I knew that there would be no other substitute for an original, Sicilian tomato pie. If that’s what you’re looking for, go to Gaeta’s.