Columbus Pizza History: A Slice by Slice Account
Posted by cmh gourmand on October 5, 2008
Alternate Title: It’s Hip to be Square!
Pizza freaks know there are many styles of pizza – some pizzas have stronger claims to fame than others. A few of the better known styles are: New York, Chicago, California, New Haven and Neapolitan. Some lesser known styles are: Detroit, St. Louis, Midwestern, and Columbus. Yes, a case can be to be made for a Columbus style pizza or at least, an appendix about Columbus contributions to the Midwestern style. This may heat up some people, especially many of the east coast transplants in Columbus whining about square cut pizzas and being unable to find a decent triangle slice anywhere.
The history of pizza in the Capital City dates back to 1929. This makes Columbus one of the oldest centers of pizza pie production in the Midwest. Outside of a few east coast cities, pizza did not become common anywhere in the United States until after World War Two.
So what is Columbus style pizza? Square cut (AKA Tavern Cut) for sure, some say this facilitates sharing. The crust is thin, the bottom has a dusting of cornmeal and there is not much of a “ring”/crust at the end for holding your slice. Easy to find examples of Columbus style pizza are Donatos and Massey’s.
This square cut approach is a Midwestern thing – you will find it as far east as Steubenville/Wheeling, WV and as far west as St. Louis. It is pretty common in Chicago. The square cut has been documented in Columbus since at least 1934 (TAT Ristorante) and was locked in as part of the “Columbus style” in 1949 by Massey’s.
Pizza can be placed in Columbus in 1929 at TAT Ristorante. TAT served pizza in Flytown, a not so nice name for the part of town for immigrants and African Americans that was between Spruce Street and Buttles Avenue, west of Goodale Park. Flytown was razed in the 1950′s.
This is the mural of Flytown you can find in the Short North.
Pizza was not on the menu at first, but you could order it at TAT Ristorante di Familia. The restaurant has some menus from the 1930′s which do show pizza as a menu item. TAT was named after the new Transcontinental Air Transport company which used Ford Tri Motor planes and passenger trains to transport people from New York to Los Angeles in 48 hours. The first stop on this journey was in Columbus where travelers left a train and traveled to the new Port Columbus airport to begin the air segment of their trip. TAT was new and exciting. This inspired the name of the new restaurant.
TAT has moved several times since the then. The Corrova family still makes a good pizza pie at their location at James Avenue on the east side. There is a great mural on the wall which maps out the TAT continental route from coast to coast. There are many newspaper articles covering the wall outlining the long history of TAT (restaurant) in Columbus. TAT is the oldest family owned restaurant in the city.
The next major event was the opening of the first true pizzeria. Looking at old records (thanks to Jim Early from Columbus Restaurant History), in 1951, a restaurant that had pizza in the name was listed in Columbus phone books: “Romero’s Pizzeria” at 1576 West 5th Ave. This marks when a new Italian pizza family started tossing dough in Columbus.
The Massuci family changed their name to Massey and started a chain that was branded as the makers of the “The Cadillac of Pizza”.
Romeo Siri, Guido Casa and the Massey Brothers introduced pizza to Columbus at Romeo’s Italian Restaurant on West Fifth Avenue.
(According to the Massey’s pizza website): In 1949, Jim and Dan Massey opened Columbus’ first pizzeria on East Main Street in Whitehall. The 1950′s saw the rise of some other well known dough slingers.
Thomas Iacono opened his first restaurant on Fifth Avenue in 1952, using his own family recipe brought over from Italy. Tommy’s Pizza features a thin cracker crust that crisps on the bottom when baked. The two Tommy’s locations on Lane Avenue are OSU campus landmarks. In 1954, Rubino’s Pizzeria and Spaghetti opened in Bexley and it retains a cult-like following today. Newspaper columnist and writer Bob Green made Rubino’s famous as he wrote of his memories about growing up in central Ohio.
(Massey’s web site again) “Guido Casa took over Massey’s in 1962, he perfected the special dough recipe that is used today. It’s always baked directly on the hearth with a specially ground cornmeal producing a thin, flavorful crust.”
“In 1971, Guido Casa’s son Philip, stepped in to carry on the tradition. He trademarked Massey’s exclusive Guido Brand pepperoni which is produced right here in Columbus. He also increased the number of pepperoni on a large pizza to 155 pieces.”
Though now operated by cousins of the original owners (Dave and Jim Pallone), Massey’s is still a benchmark for area pizza, with its rectangular slices, liberal herb sprinkling, spicy sausage and pepperoni (still made in Columbus), a good mix of quality cheese with a thin and crispy crust jacked up with a cornmeal dusting.
The 1960′s saw the beginning of another pizza powerhouse, Donatos. The Grote family took Columbus style pizza to the next level and beyond, opening many locations throughout the Midwest. The company was purchased by McDonald’s but after a few years, McDonald’s attempt at McPizza faltered and the Grote family purchased their company back for less than what they were paid originally.
Today Columbus us still takes a big piece of various pizza pie charts. There are over 450 pizzerias in the Columbus Metropolitan area. Columbus is home to NAPICS – North America Pizza and Ice Cream Show which is one of the biggest industry trade events in the world. We are also home to Mama Mimi’s Take and Bake Pizza. In Feb. 2000 Mama Mimi’s Take n Bake Pizza was born. Jeff and Jodi Aufdencamp have worked hard to put Columbus and Mama Mimi’s on the “Pizza World Map” by winning numerous national pizza competitions and awards. I had the pleasure of watching this company grow due to my close proximity to their Clintonville location.
So there you have it, Columbus and our pizza heritage. As for the whole square thing, I have to thank Richard Folk from Massey’s for finding an old article about pizza in Columbus that I could not get a copy of by any others means. Some excerpts from the article are listed below.
Columbus is Square When it Comes to Pizza
By Dan Trittschuh
“according to a survey conducted by the Triad Research Group in Cleveland, 66 percent of Columbus pizza lovers prefer to have their pizza cut into squares, rather than triangular wedges. At most pizza shops throughout the nation, the pieces are cut into wedges. And in neighboring Cleveland, the survey found that 70 percent of pizza consumers preferred wedges over squares.”
After surveying some of Massey’s long-time pizza cooks, Pallone surmised an answer to the mystery of square-cut pizza: “One of the old-timers around here was saying that we always used to serve the pizzas in paper bags, and that the pizza slices might have slid into the bag a little easier if they were cut in squares rather than wedges.”
And some more leisure reading for you:
If you have a passing interest in Pizza and want a list of hot spots – this map is a fun and interesting way to discover the vast array of regional choices in this US of A.