Aficionadough: Columbus’ First Pizza, Old School Charm on Tap at TAT
Who am I? Why am I here? These are questions some of us ask all of our lives with no answer. However, in this case, I have the answers.
I am Jim Ellison and in my role as an Aficionadough I am going to eat pizza and write about it for YOU. In this column, the focus will be on classic Columbus pizza shops of the mom-and-pop variety, but I reserve the right to deviate from the mission as long as the subject is dough-based.
Some of you, with long-held, deep hipster credibility, will recall me as CMHGourmand in the primordial days of Columbus Underground. Others of that ilk may also recall Pizza Grand Prix, a favored event among the CU fan base in the first decade of the century. For those that do not know me, I am a food enabler and I am here to celebrate pizza in the Capital city. So let’s start from the beginning.
One can not have a discussion on Columbus pizza without paying homage to TAT Ristorante di Famiglia, 1210 S. James Rd. I’ll go a step further and state, one should not discuss restaurants in Columbus without a mention of TAT. As an Aficionadough with a desire to start on the right foot with the dining public, TAT is the only place where we can begin. (Please note: we will get to the pizza part eventually.)
TAT Ristorante is a truly authentic experience that can’t be reproduced, replicated or replaced. It is a snapshot in time. The South James location is over 40 years old, but as soon as you walk into the dining area, you feel like you are transported to the 1950s. Not bad for a family restaurant that started in 1929. While the owners have joked over the years that TAT stands for Take Any Table, the inspiration for the initials and the name comes from the first coast-to-coast airline, Transcontinental Air Transport. The original patriarch, Papa Pete Corrova, in need of a name for his new business, looked to the sky and saw the answer on the side of an airplane.
As the first restaurant to serve pizza in Columbus, and perhaps Ohio, TAT offered pizza to the public in 1934. While pizzeria or pizza is not tagged in the TAT name, they had a a big head start over our other legacy pizzerias of the 1950s (Massey’s, Tommy’s, Gatto’s, Ange’s, Rubino’s and Terita’s). Even though pizza is not listed at the forefront of the menu, it has never been an afterthought by any means. I have eaten many a pizza pie in Columbus and I have never had reason to take TAT off my top ten list. The heyday of the pizza side of TAT was in the 1960s when the family had a pizza-focused location on the west side. On a typical Friday and Saturday night, there were up to six TAT delivery wagons delivering 600 pizzas per night!
Pizza at TAT will please any classic Columbus Pizza fan’s palate with no need to stray from tradition: medium-thin crust, just the right proportion of sweet-leaning sauce with a trace of zippy zest to it, cornmeal dusted bottom crust, provolone cheese and ample toppings, especially in the pepperoni department.
What I just described is enough to be a crowd pleaser, but wait, there’s more! There are two things that stand out about TAT that allow me to pick it out from any other pizza in town. The crust is denser and chewier than the norm. While a few other places may offer “center cut,” TAT offers it as a default not a special request. Describing this old-school slice approach is straightforward: Make one series of the standard horizontal cuts of the typical square cut Columbus pizza, then spin 90 degrees, make one cut down the center, then STOP! The result is what I refer to as the Grand Compromise – the best of tavern/party cut (squares) fused with the finest of pie cut (triangles). The end result is long rectangle slices with an ample crust edge in each slice.
If you want to go all in for the TAT Pizza experience, these are the two pies that will open your eyes. The “All Meaty One” layers Pepperoni and bacon with house-made Italian sausage and in-house meatballs. Fewer places offer white pizzas, but TAT offers several types. My go-to showcases sun dried tomatoes, artichoke and spinach on a base made with extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic and topped with ricotta cheese, parmesan and provolone. If you add a dash of red pepper flakes to this white pizza, you will be a quick convert.
Michelle Corrova, who runs the back of the house of her family’s restaurant insists on making most of the pizza and her trained eye and pizza peel skills have never let me down. Her sister, Marianne, runs the front of the house. COVID has been a challenge to the family, but they have pivoted, persevered and adapted to many adversities. TAT created an efficient curbside pick-up option, highlighted their online ordering options and added in DoorDash, Uber Eats and Slice as delivery options.
Jimmy Corrova, the second-generation patriarch of the clan, was a daily fixture at the restaurant. Jimmy knows every customer new or old by name and doing the daily rounds at TAT is in his heart and soul. COVID kicked him out of the restaurant for health reasons and he has not set foot in his “home” since March 2020. To make up for his absence the family blew up a photo of Jimmy and his wife Dolores so they can keep an eye on the place until he comes back.
While pick-up is a great option (remember delivery services cost you and the restaurant a slice of the profits and cost), for the true TAT experience one must dine-in. The space is large enough to keep you safe and distanced.
For your first meal, in addition to pizza (of course), order the ten course Sicilian Delight: Glass of house table wine, Italian salad, homemade soup, homemade spaghetti, veal parmigiana, meatball, Sicilian bread, meat-filled ravioli, homemade Italian sausage, manicotti with ricotta cheese, and Spumoni ice cream served in an old-school ice cream dish. Buon Appetito!
If you have had a TAT experience, go for the pizza, stay for the history and tradition, and then come back to more food and hopefully the return of Jimmy sooner instead of later. If we all do our part, we will have the honor of dining with the fourth and fifth generation a 100-year-old institution in just a few short years, and we can help preserve the heritage of true Columbus Style Pizza – that is worth any amount of calories.
TAT Ristorante Di Famiglia is open from 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and 3 – 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
For more information, visit tatitalianrestaurantcolumbus.com.
All photos by Jim Ellison