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Trenton, N.J. — Forget the breakfast of champions. Here, at De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pies on Hudson Street, they serve the dinner of Supreme Court justices. From a narrow row house deep in the gritty Chambersburg neighborhood that was once a crossroads of Italian-American life, De Lorenzo’s has been serving exquisite pizza since 1947 — back when they called it tomato pie, not pizza. The owners still remember serving tomato pies to the young Samuel Alito Jr., the Supreme Court nominee who was born in Trenton in 1950. He came in with his sister Rosemary and their parents. Most of all, though, they remember his father, Samuel Alito Sr., who worked not far away, at the Statehouse. “A real dignified man, always smoking a pipe, a wonderful man,” says Gary Amico, the current genius who assembles the pies. He is the son-in-law of Alexander “Chick” De Lorenzo, the patriarch founder of the restaurant who lives upstairs and still greets the customers every evening.
Click above for more coverage on the Alito Nomination, including links to audio highlights from the hearings.

A boyhood friend of the Supreme Court nominee enthused on C-SPAN last month that De Lorenzo’s was frequented not only by the young Alito but also by the young Antonin Scalia, also a Trenton native. But Amico doubts that is true, and it probably is not. Born in 1936, Scalia was a kindergartner when he and his family moved from Trenton to New York City, years before De Lorenzo’s opened. Scalia still had family ties in Trenton after that, so it’s possible he stopped by, but he does not remember it. But no matter. Scalia’s pizza preferences are already well documented. In a 1991 Cardozo Law Review article titled “My Pizza With Nino,” Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit linked Scalia’s “approach to pizza” to his jurisprudence. Based on several pizza experiences with the justice, Kozinski reported that Scalia refuses to eat pizza that is not from A.V. Ristorante — a rustic joint on New York Avenue N.W. in Washington, D.C., that may be closing soon — just as he refuses to go beyond the words of the Constitution or statutes to do his job. So a pilgrimage to De Lorenzo’s seemed in order. Would its crust, or its tomato sauce, yield clues about Alito’s approach to the law? More important, how is the pizza? Zagat has rated it as the best in New Jersey, and that is no small feat. TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES I take the train north and know I am almost there when I see the “Trenton Makes, The World Takes” motto on the side of the bridge over the Delaware River — a motto adopted when the city was making steel, not Supreme Court justices. It is a springlike day, so when I arrive, I decide to walk to De Lorenzo’s — a short distance from the station, by my reckoning. But just to be sure, I check directions with a uniformed officer. He looks at my map and tells me which blocks surrounding the restaurant are controlled by which gang. He recommends I take a taxi to De Lorenzo’s, and it suddenly sounds like a good idea. Along the way there are streets lined by pleasant enough working-class row houses. But there is a long-suffering, hunkered-down look to the neighborhood. Almost no one is on the streets. It seems spiritless. An occasional Italian restaurant presents itself during the ride, and down the street from De Lorenzo’s, Carini’s Meat Market sports a red, white, and green awning — a sure sign of Italian heritage. I stop there first, and sure enough, there is a deli case with prosciutto and capicola. And on some shelves you can find tins of sardine sauce for pasta, and the imported pasta to go with it. I arrive at De Lorenzo’s a few minutes before its scheduled 3:30 p.m. opening time (it is open for lunch only on Fridays). In the next few minutes other people materialize, as well. A Jaguar with Pennsylvania plates pulls up. A half-dozen people emerge from cars to form a line, waiting for the doors to open. Suddenly, on this stretch of Hudson Street, there is a street life. All have been there many times. They revere the place for its pizza. The only drawbacks, they tell me, are that it has no liquor license and no bathroom. But you can bring your own alcohol, and it appears several have. I ask for favorite toppings, and the consensus is that a first-timer like me should try sausage and garlic or clams. I decide to order both. When the door finally opens, about 15 minutes late, we all file in and head quickly to the booths. There are no more than a dozen booths or tables in the entire place, which is really the first floor of a home. Along one side wall are the pizza oven and a small counter where Amico creates his masterpieces, one at a time. On the other wall are the obligatory photos, but they are impressive. Over the years, they attest, Frank Sinatra has been here, as were Joe DiMaggio and Luciano Pavarotti. Gary’s son Sam takes orders, and I realize that with one oven baking only a couple of pies at a time, some in the first wave of customers will wait a long while. But no one minds. Conversation flows easily, and Eddie, a customer I talked to outside, offers me a Coors Light. When I try to pay him he refuses, but he admits that he overheard me ordering clam pizza and wouldn’t mind a slice when it comes out. I walk over to Gary, who is easy to talk to even as he races to fill orders. His crusts are thin and irregularly shaped, and the cheese sparingly sprinkled. For my sausage-and-garlic pie, the chopped garlic is plentiful and the sausage goes on raw. For my other pie, the clams are mixed with lots of oregano — a classic Italian combo. “The tomatoes go on last,” Gary instructs, adding, “That’s why they call it tomato pie.” SAUCE ON THE RIGHT We talk about Alito, and I ask about the sauce. “Is there something in the sauce that makes him so conservative?” He laughs and shoves the ladle over to the right side of the pot. “That’s it. There’s your reason. I put it on from the right side.” Then he asks a question I’ve never heard in a pizza place: “You like yours well done?” I was speechless — there’s a choice? But “yes” seemed like the right answer, so that’s what I said. The one-oven, one-chef approach at De Lorenzo’s allows Gary to check his pizzas often and make amendments: He’ll pull out a pizza and throw a little more mozzarella on, or hit it with some more olive oil, then shove it back in. Leon, a customer who also sells restaurant supplies to De Lorenzo’s, walks over and tells me he once asked the elder De Lorenzo for the secret to his pizza. “He said he uses the best flour, the best cheese, the best oil, the best everything,” Leon says, and he shrugs. “But that’s not the secret. There’s something more to it.” Leon also points out that he’s never been able to sell De Lorenzo’s a pizza cutter. “They use a clam knife to cut the pies. The slices are all different sizes and shapes.” My pizzas arrive, and they live up to the high expectations. I too can’t pinpoint the secret to their success. But these odd-shaped slices offer surprises in every bite. The thin crust is crunchy in places, softer in others, but always contributes to the flavor. Some bites have no cheese at all. The sausage and garlic are powerful but not overwhelming. The clams and oregano assert themselves boldly but not too loudly. An answer to the Alito question has emerged with the pizza. This is pizza minimalism at its best. Unlike pizza chains that think they have to heap on the ingredients to win customers, De Lorenzo’s is confident enough to know that less is more. Barely enough crust and cheese, not too much tomato, and an emphasis on toppings that are not timid but also not over-the-top. This could be good news to Cass Sunstein at the University of Chicago Law School, who wrote a book praising judicial minimalism but worries that Alito might move the Court sharply to the right. If Alito follows the example of his boyhood pizza, he will do just enough to decide a case: no more cheese, or rhetoric, than needed. His opinions will be tantalizing enough to draw a following but not as zesty — and occasionally off-putting — as those of Scalia. Scalia, I can attest, is an unabashed anchovinist when it comes to pizza toppings. As I savor this thin-crusted bliss, the elder De Lorenzo emerges from his upstairs apartment and goes from table to table. Chick, 83, is happy to see one customer tackling two pizzas. He sits down and reminisces about nearly 60 years of living above his business and the pleasure it gave him, his family, and his family of customers. He says he remembers Alito, but he could just be saying so to be agreeable. He acknowledges with a shy grin that he is a Democrat and has always been a Democrat. So what does it mean to Chick De Lorenzo that the next Supreme Court justice ate his pizza while growing up? “It means,” he says slowly, “that his parents were very smart.”


Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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