Aficionadough: Going Home to The Pizza House

Jim Ellison Jim Ellison Aficionadough: Going Home to The Pizza HouseThere's some nostalgia in the latest Aficionadough, and Pepperoni & Sausage pizza from Pizza House - Photos by Jim Ellison
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In the beginning, there was Dante’s in Clintonville. At the end of third grade, the original Franco’s (RIP) doubled my exposure to pizza. This 40-seater megaplex was heaven to an 8-year-old of the era. The dining area showcased a projector that maintained a continuous loop of Three Stooges shorts, cartoons and a 17-minute highlight reel of the best moments of Star Wars (before it was called A New Hope). Back by the bathroom, there was a tabletop video game and a Lectronamo pinball game. Featured on the back display panel of that four-legged amusement device, a silver, half pegasus/half nude supermodel lured many a quarter from my prepubescent pockets. These assets aside, Franco’s was my first encounter with cup and char pepperoni and for that I am eternally grateful.

In fourth grade, my family would occasionally visit a fancy new place just short of the Worthington line. Fancy, in my eyes was silverware wrapped in a napkin, a menu of greater than one page and servers that dressed alike. The pizza here was good, but the greatest offering of this eatery was hidden from me for nearly two decades; the bar side of Villa Nova has the best happy hour in town. It would be another four years before a third new pizzeria came into my domain. During the tail-end of eighth grade, Dungeons and Dragons entered my life, hammering the final nail in the coffin that contained any glimmer of hope of a high school social life. My host to this new experience was Doctor No (alternate name used to protect his identity from association with me and our activities of the era). The pizza magic those weekend nights provided could never be dimmed by a vorpal blade, magic scroll or bag of holding. Dungeons, dwarfen fighters, acne and social ineptitude would eventually fade away (three out of four ain’t bad) but Pizza House always rolled a natural twenty in my heart. 

Eventually, I would moped my way across the railroad tracks for pizza on my own. Then, by the end of high school, I upgraded my personal pizza delivery device to the death trap that was a 1979 Chevy Camaro. The original Pizza House location was a nondescript building at the corner of Lincoln and Sinclair. It was the site of my first “independent” dining experience – transporting myself, paying with hard earned money from my job at Knights Ice Cream, and leaving a tip for service. In my youth, before I came an Aficionadough, I did not spend my time pondering and pontificating about what made a pizza good or great. I mainly concentrated on making certain we got the right topping combination which was always pepperoni and sausage.

A closeup of the pepperoni & sausage pizza from Pizza House – Photo by Jim Ellison

There were a few dalliances of youth after I discovered Pizza House. Iacono’s came into my life, initially via a monthly senior lunch where we pretended to have some shred of freedom from the draconic nuns of high school. When I moved on to a much better world at THE Ohio State University, I was bombarded with a plethora of new pizzas, but Pizza House stayed strong in the rotation. When I graduated and secured gainful employment, Pizza House was still in the picture, but mainly when I had my original Pizza House pal in town. Doctor No mandated a very specific order at his pizza destination on his visits: one large pizza and a meatball sub apiece at Pizza House. We split the pizza, saved one half of the sub for later and alternated picking up the tab. As I approached Y2K, Pizza House and pizza in general shifted in priority but it was never fully forgotten. 

Seven years ago, just after being married, I lured my new bride from her suburban bliss of Grove City to renovate and rehab our new home in Clintonville. Within a few days, she cascaded down the stairs resulting in an equal amount of rehab for her. This unplanned event brought Pizza House back into standard rotation, but this time with a twist. At some forgotten point of time, I was turned on to the open-faced wet meatball sub at Pizza House. There are few sandwiches that please me more. For my wife and I, the subs (standard meatball for her) reigned supreme and the pizza of the house was an occasional afterthought. I was perplexed, what had changed in my connection to Pizza House pizza over the years? I’ll blame Doctor No for part of it, his trips home became less frequent. I’ll blame Columbus too, there was a lot more to catch my culinary attention after Y2K. And I’ll blame it on the rain, because I can. However, I digress on my own history with Pizza House, let’s dig into a more interesting story.    

Pizza House has long been a family affair. Cousins Bob Tiberi and Richie Dorn opened Pizza House at the northwest corner of the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Sinclair Road in 1961. The original location was a carryout driven operation with seating for about 20 as long as they came in fewer than four cars. The cousins used recipes passed down from their mothers. Billy Colasante was the first non-family employee, he started when he was 15 years old and stayed an equal number of years. In 1991, Pizza House relocated to the current location in a former Lawson’s convenience store about 200 yards from the original. Pizza House 2.0 is much larger with a full-sized dining room and a dedicated pizza pick-up area. 

Colasante purchased the business from his old bosses in 1993. Many employees have worked at the Pizza House for three or more decades. The familiar faces among the staff working in the house does reinforce the family-friendly vibe for pick-up or dine-in experiences. Pizza House has consistently landed among the top 25 pizza places in numerous polls and best of lists over the decades. In 2017, Colasante’s son, Rodd Carmean bought Pizza House from his father. Carmean worked at both the original and current location while growing up, so he knew the family business well which helped the pizzeria weather the storm of COVID. 

Back to the present. It has gnawed at my soul for a decade…why I have not eaten at Pizza House as often as I could have? Over the last year, I have directed a lot of scrutiny at each bite of Pizza House I consumed. The Wet Meatball Sub is objectively still absolutely perfect in every conceivable measuring point. In the arena of pizza, I consistently observed appreciation of the slow-cooked pizza sauce. It has elements of garlic, more than a pinch of salt and a trace of basil, at least that is what my palate suggests and my very Italian wife tells me. Pizza House almost always hits the Goldilocks zone of sauce distribution – never too much or too little – just the right amount while not affecting the ability of the cheese to cling to the crust or causing a soggy mess. The crust is a trace thicker than most, but clearly within the medium-thin thickness range of a traditional Columbus Style Pizza. The toppings are plentiful. The service is never apathetic. The pepperoni is generously applied and of high quality. Thin discs of encased meat infuse the pepperoni and sausage combo. While this type of sausage is less common today it is the sausage of my youth and is appreciated as such.  

Pizza House’s Wet Meatball Sub – Photo by Jim Ellison

So what was missing? Why was I not craving Pizza House as much as I probably should be? I racked my brain for six months then I had an epiphany. There is one person vastly more experienced with Pizza House than I am, the infamous Doctor No. We had a long conversation about our shared Pizza House experiences, including our greatest missed opportunity of all time. At the end of high school or the onset of college we opted out of asking out two deaf young ladies that made an effort to sit by us at Pizza House. That they were not immediately repulsed by our lack of everything by selecting a more distant booth was a huge boon to our self esteem. However, with the passage of time I recognize it was probably not our jokes they were laughing at or drawn to.

Doctor No has many superpowers and one is the ability to easily identify the obvious. At the end of our chat the great mystery was solved. The error in my ways was not getting extra cheese when I ordered a large Pizza House pepperoni and sausage pizza. Duh! Not that Pizza House skimps on cheese, but those additional shreds of provolone on a 14-inch circle of perfection, combined with the grease of a defined volume of two types of encased meat discs, creates something that is greater than the sum of already excellent parts. This specific combination was the only version of Pizza House pizza I ate for nearly 20 years, so the missing element caused disequilibrium in my soul. We never had a small or medium pizzas and always THE combo in that exact format when I was with Doctor No. Extra cheese was the rosetta stone that revealed the small detail lost to time and to taste. I am now, properly, ordering my pizza from Pizza House and still find no reason to not get at least one wet meatball sub to wash it down with. With that ladies and gentlemen, my mind is at ease and Pizza House is back on speed dial.  

Now, I segue from this soliloquy with one final pizza question for all. What is your perfect pizza ingredient combo or what are the preferred elements for your perfect pizza experience – anywhere? For me, for any pizza, I need it paired with a Coke (no Pepsi, heaven forbid not Mountain Dew, no go on the Faygo, etc.). In a dire emergency or if no other cold, carbonated beverages can be had, I might opt for a fountain root beer, but I need a specific beverage to fully enjoy my pizza.

At Adriatico’s, my order is always pepperoni with extra sauce on top. I hated Rubino’s the first time I tried it but then I learned that many regulars order their pizzas at Rube’s well done with extra cheese, pepperoni and sausage. It changed my opinion. Those additional, insider instructions upgraded my pizza experience immensely. So somewhere out there, you may have a pizza you don’t connect with and when this happens, I challenge you to search out the right combination of elements and give it another shot. All I am saying is, give pizza a chance. 

Find Pizza House at 747 E. Lincoln Ave. Hours are Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Saturday 12 – 10 p.m. and Sunday 3 – 9 p.m.

For more information, visit pizzahousecolumbus.com.

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