Satisfying his hunger

Slice is Jason Dilks' homage to the delectable Trenton pizza he grew up eating.

Posted: February 08, 2009

Among this city's appreciators of the subtleties of the pizza-making arts there are, if you probe discreetly, a sizable number who will concede that for one of the finest examples you have long had to leave town, drive up I-95, cross the Delaware, and thread your way through the ghost streets of humbled Trenton.

There on Hudson Street in the shadow of the old Roebling wire cable works is a pine-paneled, rowhouse pizza parlor, dating to 1947 and a hidden mecca ever since.

It is called De Lorenzo's, and technically it serves what are called "tomato pies," the primary distinction of which is, well, that the mozzarella is on the bottom, and the crushed tomato is on the top, making its flavor the distinguishing characteristic.

But they are exemplars of the craft, nonetheless - the thin crusts supremely crunchy, the cheese playing second fiddle, the bright tomatoes perfectly balanced and tart-sweet.

For Jason Dilks, growing up near Yardley, De Lorenzo's was true north, the place he gravitated to for pizza, often twice a week. It left its imprint, an abiding food memory - and lifelong longing.

Even as he became a mechanical engineer, even as he moved south to South Philadelphia, he found he couldn't shake the hunger. So for selfish reasons and, ultimately, to the benefit of us all, he opened his own pizza joint at 10th and Federal, one block off the Italian Market: "I felt there was a lack here," he says.

He calls the place, simply, Slice.

It does not stand on ceremony. There are graceless cafe tables. There's a cold-drink box. And unlike fancier places, it will happily sell you - should you be practicing restraint - a single big slice.

I had been there a time or two. But one night last week I went back to reconfirm my impression that, yes, there were definite echoes of the shrine on Hudson Street.

It was snowing, and I bought a slice of the Americano, the style closest to the Trenton original, the melted mozzarella smiling up through the splotches of San Marzano tomato.

I tried folding it on the walk toward Ninth Street. Neon signs tattooed the night. Young Mexicans patted snowmen to life on the empty produce tables, posing with them for pictures on cell phones.

Ah, then it happened: The slice snapped and cracked under the pressure, its stiffness as sure a sign of its pedigree as the tomato-cheese reversal.

Dilks says he combines bread flour and two other flours with a secret ingredient in his daily dough. (Osteria's Marc Vetri confided once that his crust secret was a bit of brandy.)

Dilks' standard of crispness? "My ideal is to hold a slice out straight; I don't want it to sag."

Neither does he want a fat lip rim around the perimeter: "I don't like to chew through all that crust." Here the surrounding border is just as thin and flat as the rest of the base.

It's what's not in the sauce, he says, that counts. If my memory serves, De Lorenzo's simply hand-crushed canned California tomatoes, adding a little tomato puree and a touch of seasoning. (At Slice, the oregano is a whiff.)

The mozzarella is a brand called Grande, out of Brooklyn, which Dilks says resists burning on the stones in the heat of the gas oven.

And that's it, almost. There's a final dusting of Parmesan, a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.

You can add sausage from Maglio's, the sausage house near Third and Pattison. You can get the extremely credible Margherita, with the fresh mozzarella on the top. You can order the Italiano (with gorgonzola, prosciutto and arugula), but please don't: It's way too salty.

Slice, it turns out, may have created its homage just in time. Even Trenton may soon lose its best De Lorenzo's. (There's a second, lesser one, run by a different branch of the family.)

Last year, the younger De Lorenzos opened an updated and avowedly faithful version in Washington Town Center, the sprawling complex near the South Jersey town of Hamilton.

The Hudson Street original has sliced back its hours, now serving from 4 to 9 p.m. for just four days, Thursday through Sunday.

It's only, as they say, a matter of time.


Slice

Corner of 10th

and Federal Streets

215-463-0868


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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