Salvatore's Tomato Pies

Photo by Eric Tadsen

The year is 1991. I’m seven years old wearing hand-me-down jeans and a t-rex print t-shirt, and my favorite cartoon heroes have a new movie out: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. The movie opens with a shot of New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground. We zoom in and get to ground level, where everybody is eating pizza. All these years later, I still remember the couple eating pizza between smooches and the cops eating pizza while making an arrest. In my mind, everyone on the East Coast lived and breathed pizza; I found mecca to a religion I didn’t even know I belonged to.

That’s the power of pizza, and we’re not short of worshippers or shrines in the Madison area. The owner of Salvatore’s Tomato Pies, Patrick DePula, even hails from New Jersey, home to the longest continuously running, family-owned pizzeria, Papa’s Tomato Pies in Trenton. But association does not greatness make. Fresh ingredients and truly doing everything from scratch, however, can certainly get you there.

Even in the beginning, Patrick and his wife, Nichole, were frequenting the Dane County Farmers’ Market for ingredients. “When I first started going, I would bring a shoulder bag that I would put stuff in,” says Patrick. “Then that evolved into my son’s red wagon that I’d pull around. Then it evolved into two wagons. Then a big yellow gorilla cart with the other two wagons. Now it’s the big yellow gorilla cart and a truck.” They went from spending $400 in 2011 to $5,000 today.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Though the idea was initially to make New Jersey–style pizza, what ended up happening is something Patrick calls pizza with New Jersey roots filtered through Wisconsin. The logic is simple enough, you can’t get food fresher than what’s grown right here, so why fight it? This mentality has created Patrick’s customers’ favorite seasonal pizzas, some so good, they’ve become staples.

“Farmer Johns Smoked Gouda, that’s a pizza named for Farmer John that we only wanted to do in the summertime when heirloom tomatoes are available because their colors are fantastic when you have yellow, purple, and red tomatoes on this pizza.” When Patrick took it off the menu, customers weren’t having it.

Whether it’s Patrick’s customers or even family members, there’s this constant butting heads against what Patrick calls the convenience culture of the 1940s and ’50s. True, his grandfather immigrated from Italy and opened a series of neighborhood-style grocery stores in Trenton, and yes, they did turn into full-service supermarkets. And his Uncle Joe opened the Centre Bridge Inn, a popular wedding venue in Pennsylvania. And Uncle Billy had delis, and Uncle Tony had a provisions company. But even with that background, when his mother heard about all the work Patrick puts into making pasta and processing meats, she asked, “Why don’t you just buy it?”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

To answer that question, let’s go back to when Patrick worked in tech and HR. “I wasn’t really making anything in my career. I was shuffling paper and hiring and recruiting people and working for larger companies. I had this realization in my early 30s that I couldn’t imagine doing this for the rest of my life.” With a three-year-old and Nichole pregnant, which is the ideal time to plunge into a new career, the opportunity came from Vito Cerniglia of the Italian Workmen’s Club to start a pizzeria in Salvatore’s original Sun Prairie, Main Street location.

Would it have been easier to wait and maybe try to open a restaurant later? Probably. Was Patrick willing to set aside his vision for the sake of doing what was easier? Absolutely not—just as he wouldn’t give in to convenience culture. Patrick says, “We always had this idea that we should attempt to cook the way that my family did when they immigrated from Italy.”

Doing things the way they did in the old country extends to two of the most important factors in good pizza: the dough and the sauce. “There’s no sugar in our dough. We rely on fermentation to build natural sugars. And there’s no sugar in our sauce—just straight up tomatoes.” After a trip through the gas stone deck oven, you’ve got yourself a delicious crust that’s crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Patrick’s mindfulness doesn’t only impact customers. It’s reflected in how he treats his employees, providing benefits, sick days, and vacation days. It’s how he treats his suppliers, believing a relationship with local farmers is more important for the community. And on community, Patrick has worked with Marcia Castro and Patrick O’Halloran, now of The Deliciouser, in improving a school’s lunch program by creating healthier options. “School lunches should be part of the education process, not a break from it,” says Patrick. He notes Japan, where students help prepare lunch and help clean up. In the convenience culture, everything is go go go. What better time than lunch to educate students on the importance of making healthy food choices; appreciating what goes into cooking; and, as a bonus, rebelling against treating meals as recharging the battery rather than as an opportunity for connection.

Patrick has also teamed up with Pio of Delta Beer Lab to create Sal’s Pale Ale: a sessionable beer, meaning relatively low ABV, that’s a clean, crisp, and aromatic complement to any pizza, including the El Santo (the Sun Prairie Salvatore’s has a proclivity for naming pizzas after famous Mexican luchadores). El Santo is a seasonal pizza featuring sweet corn from Green Barn Farm Market.

Salvatore’s has come a long way over the decade, going from 3 employees to nearly 200, and I don’t think even Patrick knows what the future holds for his and Nichole’s pizzerias. Whatever the direction, Greater Madison is becoming more and more its own pizza haven, and Salvatore’s will certainly continue playing a predominant role in it.

Kyle Jacobson is lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Salvatore’s Tomato Pies

Locations in:
• Sun Prairie
• Madison East (Johnson Street)
• Monona
• Madison North (Livingston Street)