Hunter Phelan and Garrett Policastro first met back in the early ’90s when they were co-workers at the Hollywood Athletic Club, a popular night spot in Los Angeles. They used to go out for pizza together all the time on Hollywood Boulevard — and those get-togethers ended up sparking a future business idea.
“We called it ‘ketchup on bread,’ because the pizza wasn’t that good,” said Phelan. “I have no idea how long those places were in business before I moved to Los Angeles from Houston, but they’re still there and we knew that we could make money in the pizza business. Garrett said that one day he wanted to open up a pizza place and blow the doors off Los Angeles pizza.”
In the late ’90s, Policastro moved back to his hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., to work for his family, which owned pizzerias on the East Coast. After a couple of years, he had gained experience and got the cooking aspect down, so Policastro returned to California with all of his family’s recipes.
Along with his business partner, Freddy Suarez, Policastro opened the first Tomato Pie Pizza Joint 11 years ago on Melrose in Hollywood. A few years later, Policastro opened a second location in Silverlake. Then five years ago he approached Phelan about opening up a third spot in South Pasadena.
“We came out to South Pasadena, saw the space on Mission Street and just loved the charm of the entire town,” Phelan said. “It was the perfect fit for us. Despite the narrow space of the building, Garrett used his architectural background to put together a great layout that customers love.”
Tomato Pie Pizza Joint features a fun and colorful design that incorporates blue and orange colors throughout — the latter an ode to one of Policastro’s favorite sports teams, the Syracuse Orangemen.
“I learned everything from Garrett top to bottom,” Phelan said. “I’ve been in the service industry for a long time but more on the bar end of things, so it was all new for me. I started out learning how to make dough. It took me a while to learn how to make pizza, but now it’s my favorite part of the job. Making pizza is fun and very therapeutic for me.”
The trick to Tomato Pie’s pizza is the filtered water system used. It produces water similar to New York’s, and contributes to great-tasting dough.
“When people from the East Coast come in and try our pizza, they comment on how right on it is,” Phelan said. “Another thing that really separates us as an authentic New York-style pizzeria is that we offer everything by the slice here, in addition to whole pizzas. All of our pizzas are really good, and if you want to add ingredients to a slice, we’re happy to customize it to your liking.”
The No. 1-selling pizza on the menu is The Grandma, which is a margherita pizza with whole peeled tomato, garlic, basil, spots of mozzarella cheese and an original pecorino Romano crust. It previously made GQ magazine’s list of the best pizzas in 2009, and has remained a popular favorite among customers ever since.
Gluten-free pizza options are also available, and Tomato Pie Pizza Joint also serves pasta, including the Chicken Riggies that come in a spicy tomato-cream sauce with chicken, peppers and onion. The spaghetti marinara is served with classic homemade Sicilian-style sauce and meatballs, and the salads are all made with fresh produce, including the Mediterranean, which comes with mixed greens, avocado, cucumber, garbanzo beans, kalamata olives, feta cheese, red onion and tomato drizzled with lemon vinaigrette.
For dessert, customers can choose from different types of cake, chocolate cannoli and cookies. The South Pasadena location is the only Tomato Pie Pizza Joint that offers beer and wine, and catering is also available for large parties and events.
It also offers delivery within three miles in every direction, processes online orders, and is available via third-party services including Postmates, Grubhub and Uber Eats.
“Kids love to walk by and see our guys throwing the pizzas in the air,” said Phelan. “Families come in all the time and we give the kids pizza dough to play with. Our staff is always having fun and we keep the place spotless. The most important thing is the consistency with our food.”
Future plans for the business include adding a covered patio out back so customers can dine al fresco in the summer. Tomato Pie Pizza Joint also remains active in the community by participating in school fundraisers and supporting various organizations and causes in South Pasadena.
Tomato Pie Pizza Joint is located at 1130 Mission St. in South Pasadena. It is open Monday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.. For more information, call (626) 399-0459 or visit www.tomatopiepizzajoint.com.
Tomato Pie Pizza Joint Spotlight appeared in the print edition of the South Pasadena Review on 1.24.2020. Support Local Business.