Aficionadough: Deconstructing DiCarlo’s Pizza with Johnny DiLoretto
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I surfed, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious comments of Columbus Pizza Connoisseurs—
While I nodded, eyes clearly rolling, suddenly there came a posting
With comments growing, growing at my Facebook Notification front door.
“’Tis DiCarlo’s again,” I muttered, “The vitriol and hubris exuded once more— ”
“Provolone” one commenter said, and nothing more.
I will spare my readers the poetry and meander on to some semblance of prose. This is what I know of DiCarlo’s Original Pizza.
In 1945, Primo DiCarlo returned to his parents bakery in Steubenville with an inspiration to create pizza based on the popularity of the dish seen during his wartime travels. Taking a baker’s approach to pizza, the result was a bit different than what was starting to pop up in the rest of the Midwest. Using a bakery sheet pan, a thick, dense crust is baked at high heat with a coating of tomato sauce on top. Once the sheet slides out of the oven, fresh provolone is generously spread on top to melt into the steaming, browned crust.
Originally known as Steubenville Style Pizza, DiCarlo’s is now more commonly called Ohio Valley Pizza. Meteorologists give the Ohio Valley a much wider range of geography, but for this style, interpretations are found in parts of: Ohio as far north as Medina and west as Hilliard; West Virginia, where it hugs the Ohio River from Wellsburg to Vienna; and a small slice of Pennsylvania from Washington to Pittsburgh.
My prior experience with Ohio Valley Pizza was limited to two square slices consumed driving back from Steubenville in 2010. I have no recollection of which pizzeria I purchased from. While a new DiCarlo’s opened in Italian Village this year, DiCarlo’s first foray into Central Ohio was Hilliard in 2005, which has been operated by a DiCarlo family member since 2015. Something else happened in 2015 – the launch of Pizza Connoisseurs of Columbus, a Facebook discussion page devoted to pizza in Columbus whose membership has exploded to over 45,000.
DiCarlo’s has long been a hot topic on this forum and the debate can get pretty dicey. The discussion and discourse of the Steubenville approach to pizza is often heated. There is a cold war among some hardcore followers involving the temperature and format of the cheese. On occasion the trolling is hardcore to the point of potical discourse and uncivil online unrest. Whenever I start to scan new content on Pizza Connoisseurs of Columbus, I have only one thought in my mind, “I hope no one has posted, ‘What do you think about DiCarlo’s?’” (Or Wizard of Za…)
Much like the need to understand the history and culture of Columbus to appreciate and respect our style of pizza, I knew I had an obligation to dive deep down into the Steubenville style pizza experience. I channeled the dedication of an anthropologist to better understand the culture of this food. As a Columbus native, there are only three other products of Steubeville I know anything about: Dean Martin, Traci Lords and Johnny DiLoretto. Dean Martin is deceased (but he did sing about pizza in 1953). I thought Traci Lords was dead, but she is still very alive, however I was not successful in contacting her, but she is still welcome to comment. That leaves Johnny DiLoretto.
DiLoretto has been a fixture in Columbus for a few decades, starting out in television and now found on the radio at WCBE. Johnny D. and I were part of an ensemble cast for a food-focused radio show a decade ago. However, for a month, we were left unchaperoned to produce content for the show. The end result of this fiasco was a very disturbed Englishwoman, most likely an FCC employee shaking their head and our 93 listeners wondering why we had such an affinity for speaking in 1920’s style radio announcer voices. So yes, it was not the best idea to drag in Johnny D. to pair with me for this mission. However, Johnny D. knows Steubenville and I can always trust him to have a very strong opinion on anything. As a precaution, Johnny D. had the good sense to make sure we had a third person on site to serve as chaperone, this turned out to be a crucial decision.
I put a lot of thought into my order. DiCarlo’s is pick-up only, so I made sure what I brought to the table would truly represent the DiCarlo’s experience of today and hopefully resemble how Johnny D. experienced it during his wonder years in Steubenville. At DiCarlo’s, pizza is cooked by the sheet. Each sheet has 24 slices, more commonly known as cuts, per pan. Orders are placed in groups of two cuts, with a box holding six cuts. Pepperoni can be ordered to cover all cuts, half of the cuts or you can have no pepperoni at all. You can also order extra cheese, which comes in plastic bags to add later, and banana peppers in two ounce cups. I ordered pepperoni for one box of six cuts, cheese only for the other box of six, as well as extra cheese and banana peppers.
An unexpected item on the menu was pepperoni rolls, I’ll expand on that later, however, I am obligated to order a pepperoni roll whenever one is offered. Finally, I ordered three Dad’s beverages: Root Beer, Red Cream Soda and Orange Cream Soda because I have not consumed any of those…pops…in this century.
One of the perpetual criticisms of DiCarlo’s, other than the normal square cut nonsense, is shock at seeing “raw cheese” when opening the box at pick-up. Some complain of too little cheese or the lack of a crunchy char and/or a grease lake in the middle of the pepperoni. For those that are aligned with the Columbus approach to pizza, seeing cheese without a trace of browning or just being able to see that there is actually cheese under the layers of other toppings can be a painful paradigm shift. Knowing in advance that this could be my experience helped me mentally prepare myself to avoid disappointment. In summary, if you recall nothing else from this exposition, Dicarlo’s is going to be different.
I was 20 minutes late picking up my pizza. This was entirely my fault. I will note, if you are picking from the Fifth Avenue location, trying to find a curbside pick-up spot is no easy task. There is one on-street parking space that might be viable for this concept and it is not open very often and seems impossible to pull off a pull in during heavy traffic. My pizza was nonchalantly brought to my window (I prepaid) without any fanfare or much social exchange. “Here you go…” The dude took off like the Lone Ranger without the cloud of dust. “Than (k you).” I took a look under the lid of the top box. The cheese was fully melted and the temperature was still toasty, therefore, I decided to dump some extra provolone on top of pizza number one to see how much it would melt on the drive to my test site.
I arrived at Casa DiLoretto with the host greeting me in the driveway. I was introduced to our chaperone/overseer who happens to be from Wintersville, Ohio so she also grew up on Steubenville Style Pizza. We immediately dove into the pizza scene in Steubenville which is not limited to Dicarlo’s. Giannamore’s was highly praised with some mention made of Ray’s and Iggy’s, each offering their riff on what DiCarlo’s spawned in Steubenville 75 years ago.
Using the clinical detachment of a therapist, I had Johnny D. travel down deep into his early memories of DiCarlo’s and Steubenville pizza in the 1970s and 1980s. Neither our chaperone or Johnny D. recall eating raw cheese on a local pizza pie in their youth. Their shared experience was of car rides home after picking up pizza to-go and the cheese being melted by the time the station wagon pulled into the driveway.
We then diverted our discussion to topics such as Pizza Polarization, the ongoing debate of what is good pizza, etc. My notes from this part of the conversation are sketchy but some of the words I wrote down are: ass (as a verb and adjective), pizza purity, poor man’s deconstruction, poor man’s cheesecake, the importance of next day cold pizza appreciation and I think the word toothsome.
At this point, it was well past 35 minutes since pizza pick up time but I was still immersed in our discussion of ‘What is the authentic DiCarlo’s pizza experience?’ Fortunately, after having listened to two old men ramble on about the nuances of pepperoni and provolone, our chaperone wisely observed that we had yet to consume a single bit of DiCarlo’s and we had barely looked at it other than for my obligatory photo shoot. It was time to get to the meat and the cheese of the matter. (Something I’m sure, you my 57 readers, asked four to six paragraphs ago).
Eating commenced in a very clinical manner. The cheese that was originally placed on both bases out of the oven was melted and nowhere near being raw. The extra cheese I threw onto one of the pizzas at pickup was slightly melted, but keep in mind I was late in the picking up part of this investigation. In this area, DiCarlo’s was true to memories of DiLoretto. Before designating my dining date with DiLoretto, I researched the concern about “raw cheese” on a pizza and came about this tidbit from Beto’s in Pittsburgh, which serves Ohio Valley Pizza. The reason for dumping on cheese after the crust comes out of the oven? “Because cheese – that all-important pizza ingredient – loses 30% of its flavor when cooked in an oven.”
The pepperoni was not crunchy or slightly charred like many classic Columbus style pizzas. Instead, true to Steubenville tradition, the pepperoni was “steamed to perfection” in the words and eyes of DiLoretto. While not raw, it was far from cooked, but I felt no need to find fault in DiLoretto’s statement that this mode of pepperoni accentuated and complimented the flavor of the rest of the pizza.
Next we moved on to the sauce. While not the focus of most of the online debate I have read about DiCarlo’s, in the arena of sauce, DiLoretto came ready for a culinary death match. In his opinion, which he did support with some food science, the most unforgivable sin in the production of pizza is a sweet sauce. Since this is his template, then DiCarlo’s does not need to ask for penance. It’s sauce has a slightly acidic flavor with a trace of green pepper in the back notes.
Finally we ended with a celebration of the crust. DiCarlo’s golden brown crust is thicker than most but clearly neither Sicilian, Deep Dish nor Detroit in outcome. There is a crunch in each bite of the pie which offers a slight amount of resistance without being too chewy or interfering with the enjoyment of the other ingredients. To DiLoretto, the crust is the defining element of Steubenville Style Pizza and in this belief we were in complete agreement.
However, in our DiCarlo’s experience it was observed that a critical piece was missing which can’t be replicated outside of Steubenville or Wheeling. There is an aura of confidence, pride and devil-may-care attitude that comes a person that has been crafting pizza as a profession for their whole life; knowing exactly when to pull the crust out of the oven and having no doubt that what they served is exactly as it was meant to be, and that person served the same to your mom and grandfather, too. Maybe the ovens are too new, or the employees too young, or just a dash of Steubenville style je ne sais quoi is lost somewhere along I-70. The DiCarlo’s of DiLoretto’s youth did not offer a cup or banana peppers or an extra bag of cheese. Nor is this the Steubenville style pizza of his teenage artsy archetype. However, this is still darn good and worthy of being the rectangular communion wafer for his family to enjoy when he needs a taste of his past.
From my pizza perspective, I enjoyed my DiCarlo’s experience, but I need to try it again to fine tune my rating. My wife tried a slice when I came home hours later and she said it reminded her of elementary school cafeteria pizza. Neither of us view this diagnosis as a bad thing, but I want her to try DiCarlo’s as it was meant to be and I’d suggest you do the same. Order a box of six cuts, with half pepperoni. Pick up your pizza on time and eat one slice, then share the rest with your family when you get home. Get a bag of extra cheese so you can try it al fresco before trying a cut then decide from there if DicCarlo’s is for you. This is the way.
P.R.P.S. (Pepperoni Roll Postscript)
The pepperoni roll at DiCarlo’s was good, but Johnny D. and our chaperone were surprised to see it on the menu. DiLoretto had never eaten a pepperoni roll before. (WTF Johnny!) Our chaperone recalls these being common in grocery stores but never on pizzeria menus. Pepperoni Rolls are definitely an iconic food of sections of West Virginia, so I speculate that sometime during the DiCarlo’s conquest of West Virginia the business was informed this is an essential food and bowed to the wishes of their customers.
If you want to learn more about Pepperoni Rolls and their place in food history, please comment on this post and I’ll use that as support to talk my editor into letting me travel down another culinary rabbit hole discussing where else to find them in Columbus…and why.
For more information, visit dicarlospizza.com.
All photos by Jim Ellison