How Sweet It Is
Penza’s Pies at the Red Barn Café in Hammonton
Nestled among acres of blueberry farms on the outskirts of Hammonton’s town center sits a venerable red barn with a history as rich as the fruit pies it serves. Behind the counter stands Evelyn Penza, vivacious always, but a baker who started out as anything but. The photographs on a nearby wall tell a story that dates back to the late 1800s—a story with a modern-day chapter that centers on the barn.
“They were going to tear it down, but my mother said no,” Penza says. “It was too beautiful a barn. So they jacked it up and moved it across the street next to the pond.” It sat untouched for 20 years.
The barn was originally located across Route 206, says Penza, whose grandfather purchased the farm in the 1920s. Her grandfather came to the States from Sicily in 1899, and made a living as one of the first successful fruit farmers in South Jersey.
Penza never had an interest in farming; instead, she became an English teacher. She taught in Germany and Vermont for years before returning home to settle down in Hammonton with her husband. The two decided to make use of the abandoned barn and began selling antiques out of it in the 1970s. But, when work obligations drove the marriage apart, Penza found herself a newly single mom to sons Vincenzo and Fred. By the mid-1980s, she needed a new direction.
Fred suggested that she turn the old barn into a pie shop. Penza’s mother was an award-winning baker, but Penza scoffed at the thought of baking anything herself.
“I told him, ‘Fred, I can’t even boil water,’” Penza says.
Fred convinced her otherwise.
South Jersey was teeming with farm markets in the 1980s, and freshly baked pies were commonplace. To make a living, Penza needed to diverge from the traditional.
“My mother got very upset when I said I wanted to mix apples with berries,” Penza says, “but turns out it worked.”
Today, Penza’s apple-berry combination, known as the Very Berry Pie, is a favorite among locals. Its filling begins with 50 pounds of apples—peeled in a vintage electric apple peeler that was originally part of the Milton Hershey School—combined with blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries and rhubarb. To keep up with demand, the pies are baked in batches of 24 with more than 60 pounds of fruit per batch, which Penza sources from local farms.
Penza and her team bake other local favorites, such as the best-selling blueberry-ricotta pie and Penza’s original blueberry pie, which uses about 60 pounds of blueberries per batch. The blueberries are added to water and cooked down to bring out their juices. The berries are hand-mixed with additional ingredients before they are stuffed into crusts that are pre-baked (which is necessary if they are to hold several pounds of fresh fruit without getting soggy). Penza’s house-made crumb topping is baked separately and added at the end.
“The topping is mixed with blueberries, apple juice … and a few other things,” Penza says, careful not to fully disclose the secrets to her esteemed recipes.
It was Penza’s unconventional pumpkin ricotta pie that caught the attention of television personality Al Roker, who wanted to feature the pie on his Thanksgiving segment in 2004.
“I told him no,” Penza says.
“My mother got very upset when I said I wanted to mix apples with berries, but turns out it worked.”
A nationally televised segment would be too much for the shop to handle. But when Roker’s team called and said they were driving down Route 206, Penza reluctantly agreed. They ran the segment for four straight years.
“I had to stress that we could only handle so much,” she says. “Once you try to mass produce, the quality of the product is gone.”
Penza couldn’t say exactly how many pies she sells. “I just hate to put a number on things like that.”
Each pie’s precise ingredients depend on the readiness of the fruit. “You need to move with the fruit,” Penza says. The riper the fruit, the sweeter its flavor, which means less sugar or fewer berries.
Penza also serves breakfast and lunch at the red barn. Guests can savor grilled omelets and house-made chicken pot pie in a pastel-colored dining room.
The barn’s original doors open up to wrought iron tables and chairs that are softened with mismatched pillows. Potted flowers decorate the expansive room, and pink ribbon floats through the beams on the ceiling for a wave of color. Natural light floods through the barn’s windows, and in warm weather, guests can dine on the patio outside.
“It took years to perfect the system,” Penza says. “A lot of laughing, a lot of mistakes, but we learned.”
Nearly 100 years after her grandfather purchased the land, Penza’s family farm still boasts fresh fruit and homemade pies, along with roots planted so deeply in time that Penza can’t help but think about the future. “When I ask, ‘What’s going to happen after me?’ My son laughs and says, ‘Don’t worry; me and Vincenzo will take care of everything.’”
PENZA’S PIES AT THE RED BARN CAFÉ
Route 206 and Myrtle Street, Hammonton