Tomato pies, riggies and half-moon cookies: They're no longer just 'a Utica thing'

H. Rose Schneider
Observer-Dispatch

Utica Bakery offers the city's standard array of baked goods like tomato pie, half-moon cookies and pasticciotti.

But the bakery is a 700-mile drive from Utica, in the town of Apex, near Raleigh, North Carolina.

It's not the only place you can find Utica cuisine outside the Mohawk Valley. In White Plains, Westchester County, Utica native Salvatore Torchia serves up tomato pie and signature pizzas named after the city's streets at Utica Pie Co.

In North Syracuse, Utica Pizza Company offers riggies, tomato pie and Utica greens.

Dining out:Utica Pie Co. and other White Plains dining options

The Syracuse pizzeria is part of a chain of restaurants, Charlie's Pizza, started in the Utica area by Charlie Digristina, who decided to rename the Syracuse location when it opened in 2012. 

"That word, 'Utica,' carries a punch," he explained.

Digristina also started a line of products like canned riggies sauce and frozen tomato pies that allow Utica dishes to be bought at the grocery store and prepared at home. The products are found in stores throughout six states, from chains like Price Chopper and Wegmans to Italian delis in Florida, he said.

"You find more people from upstate in different areas than you think," he said.

That has proved true for Renee DeSimone, who owns Utica Bakery with her husband, Philip, and son Vincent. Some of their customers travel hours to where they sell from a food truck three days a week; many of them transplants from Utica, she said.

"A lot of times they bite into something they hadn't had in decades and go, 'Oh my god,'" she said. "They say 'I'm home.'"

But what counts as a true Utica dish? Digristina said there are three main staples of the city: chicken riggies, Utica greens and tomato pie. At Utica Bakery, tomato pie is one of the main items, but also half-moon cookies — DeSimone notes these cakey, fudge-topped cookies are distinct from New York City's glazed shortbread black-and-white cookies — and pasticciotti, better known in Utica as pusties.

"We know when we have a Utican because they'll say they want a lemon pusty," she said. "But it's catching on here."

DeSimone's son was diagnosed with epilepsy while completing culinary school. The family opened the bakery in 2017 as a way for him to work in his field without having to drive.

They already had been perfecting recipes at home. After moving from Utica to Apex in 1998, the family often had to prepare their own Utica dishes, DeSimone said.

"We just kind of merged what we knew from our grandmothers, our aunts, my mother-in-law," she said.

These traditions, some of them going back to Italian immigrants arriving around the turn of the 20th century, are part of what make Utica cuisine so distinct, Digristina said. Some of them, like tomato pie, came out of necessity. With its acidic sauce, it could keep longer on a deli counter, he explained.

"Every Italian family had that on their table," he said.

For DeSimone, it goes back to memories made around the dinner table or in the kitchen with family every Sunday.

"You were cooking, you maybe had Frank Sinatra playing, maybe had a glass of wine," she said. "It's just the best atmosphere, it's lovely. If you hadn't had that experience, you're missing out."

H. Rose Schneider is the public safety reporter for the Observer-Dispatch. For unlimited access to her stories, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. Email Rose at hschneider@gannett.com.