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Aficionadough: Yes, There is a Columbus Style Pizza – Embrace It!

Jim Ellison Jim Ellison Aficionadough: Yes, There is a Columbus Style Pizza – Embrace It!Pizza from Emelio's - Photo by Jim Ellison
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Thank you for another viewing of Aficionadough, a column which explores pizza consumption and culture in Columbus. Recently, I discussed the first place to serve pizza in Columbus. This time around I continue to lay the foundation for your education with a deep-dive into what is Columbus Style Pizza.   

Many of you already subscribe to this truth, so you need not be assimilated. Others will roll their eyes at what they feel is some other attempt to make Columbus cooler than it is. A very small subset stopped reading after the title; no intervention we could ever conceive could bring the triangle extremists to the light, so it is best that we part ways with them now. They can’t see the pizza for the squares. 

For the rest out there on the fence about the existence of Columbus Style Pizza, or that have never heard someone opine on this controversy, this post is for you. Print this out or bookmark it to have it as a handy reference for future debate or discussion of Columbus Style Pizza. It will happen more often than you think. 

In the beginning, or 1950, pizza in Columbus became a thing. To the best of my research, by the mid 1950s there was a distinct Columbus style of pizza created by tradition, the influence of local suppliers, golf course conversations and old neighborhood friendships. Our origin story still predates the appearance of pizza in many parts of the country. While the Columbus approach to pizza has been in existence for over 60 years, skeptics remain, and I hate to say this, haters too. These non-believers get bent out of shape by the belief that a pizza cut in a squares can’t be pizza and should not be tolerated. I refer to the followers of this fractured mind set as Columbus Pizza Trolls. 

For the increasingly uncommon subset of us that were born and bred in Columbus, the belief in Columbus Style Pizza is gospel. For those that settled in Columbus pre Y2K, the conversion process has largely occurred with the opportunity to assimilate to a neighborhood and to become versed in the three essential topics of Columbus conversation: The Buckeyes, the weather and pizza.

Today, Columbus is more so a city of transplants and even those that grew up in established communities of Clintonville, Grandview, Whitehall, the Westside (the Bottoms and Hilltop), Upper Arlington and the like have started to move and lost connection to their friendly neighborhood Columbus Style Pizza shop. Now a conversation that once upon a time need not be stated because the style was ubiquitous to the city, has morphed to discussion, debate and occasional controversy. I occasionally feel like the Fox Mulder of Columbus Style Pizza with a poster that says I WANT TO BELIEVE with a Columbus Style Pizza floating in the sky (I know one of you Columbus Underground ilk can make this happen) hanging in my virtual office.   

I have eaten triangles and squares in countless cities and states of mind (no fewer than 20 of the United States) and at least 10 countries. I have dined at the most hallowed pizzerias of Naples (Italy), the finest New York City has to offer, the deepest dishes Chicago can plate, the best of the West Coast from Berkeley to Vancouver, and countless points in between. I have enjoyed many pizzerias outside the city limits. As much as I love a quintessential Columbus Style Pizzeria, my two favorite pizzas of all time are Zachary’s and The Cheese Board, both in Berkeley, California. After all of those calories, so many miles, the good, the bad and the truly ugly of pizza in all its forms, I have never found a pizza that was a carbon copy of the Columbus interpretation of pizza (circa 1950 to present). I came, I saw, I ate, a lot of pizza. 

What is Columbus Style Pizza? Here we go: thin to medium-thin crust, a red sauce than leans toward the sweet side, provolone or a provolone/mozzarella blend, a dense layer of toppings, often including a layer of pepperoni encasing the pie from one side to the other, baked in deck ovens, and, this is where some people break down into a childish rant, cut into squares which is known as tavern cut or party cut. That ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, friends, Romans, countrymen, deniers and believers, is Columbus Style Pizza. I will add a small sidenote. There is one variant to Columbus style, which I call old school, which adds in center cut (see my TAT article) and a cornmeal dusting on the bottom of the crust. 

Pizza at TAT – Photo by Jim Ellison

Breaking it down in another way, this is Columbus Style Pizza: Massey’s, Tommy’s, Gatto’s, Ange’s, Enrico’s, Terita’s, Panzera’s, Joseppi’s, Minelli’s, Little Sicily’s, Iacono’s, Vick’s, and more. These are all essential Columbus Style Pizza shops. To the casual eater, these all look the same because of the square cut, but a casual glance will show these are not exact carbon copies of each other, either, but the commonalities and traditions they share and the sum of their parts make for a Columbus Style Pizza. 

However, in writing this treatise, I felt the need to step back from my indoctrination of Columbus Style Pizza. I needed to make sure I was not a victim of groupthink or Fake Pizza News. Had a lifetime of consumption and exposure to this style somehow brainwashed me into not accepting the truth the Pizza Trolls disdainfully posted on any forum they could find? Was I too close to the subject? Could it be I was too biased by having always accepted it and never questioned its existence?  

I sought the knowledge and counsel of many more learned than me in the subject. I also asked the question on Facebook, LinkedIn, my Pizza Instagram account, and elsewhere. Is there a Columbus Style Pizza? The answer almost unanimously came back as, ‘Yes.’ 

Little Sicily’s Pizza – Photo by Jim Ellison

I emailed the great Ray Eal of RDP. Ray knows pizza. He started working in Columbus pizza shops as a young teenager, he progressed to pizzeria manager at some hallowed places, and has worked as a sales representative pushing provolone and purveying pepperonis to countless shops in the Capital City. He operated the Florida location of Franco’s Pizza for many years before coming back to Columbus. He can tell you residents of Florida recognize Columbus Style Pizza and seek it out to the point of having it shipped to them from the Capital City.     

My Pepperoni Patron Saint is Darren Ezzo of the Ezzo Sausage Company. Check out their Instagram Feed because you will see thousands of pizzerias and pizzas consumed in the journeys of Ezzo. I am certain Darren has consumed more pizza at more places than 99.9% of those living today. The response from Darren was, “Well I absolutely believe there is a Columbus Style so you can put me in that column. I’m also a great devil’s advocate so I could also talk about how it could be considered a modified tavern style or bar pizza, whichever is the preferred colloquialism.”  

Tavern or Bar Style Pizza is the preferred style to native Chicagoans…most people do not know that outside of Chicago. It is similar to Columbus Style, but predates it by about 20 years. There is a strong Chicago connection to the Columbus style in the form of Jimmy Massey (but that is another story). So I asked my high school pal Mac who grew up in Columbus Style but has resided in the south side of Chicago for the lifetime of his college-age sons. Is there a difference between the pizza imprinted in his youth in Clintonville and what he consumes in the Chicago Southland?

Mac has some serious culinary chops, in addition to being a great cook and creator for all of his adult life, he was a chef at the Three Floyds Brewpub for many years and once prepared pizzas with the great antihero of Columbus Culinaristas, @Seligmansdog. Mac says Columbus Style is similar but different from his local bar pizza. I say Columbus Pizza is the parallelogram to the rhombus that is Chicago Bar / Tavern Pizza. 

My culinary navel gazing continued for many more days as more insights from many more people came in, including the “most divisive chef in Columbus,” Matt Heaggans, and our Baker Laureate of Columbus, Matt Swint (who cut his chops working at Rotolo’s). They are on board with Columbus Style Pizza. All in all, the majority opinion is, yes, Virginia, there is a Columbus Style Pizza.

However, the greatest insight came from an unexpected source, LinkedIn. This has never been a place I expected culinary discussion, but I decided to post a hail mary inquiry to LinkedIn and received more response than anywhere else. I received an exceptional answer from W. Adam Pratt. This is what he has to share on the matter. 

As a native New Yorker in Ohio for over 20 years and in Central Ohio for 10, I can definitively say Columbus pizza is its own thing. Hard to say who the progenitor of the style is, but Donato’s, Tommy’s, Terita’s, Iacono’s, Plank’s, Gatto’s, Dante’s, Pizza House, Villa Nova, and Granddad’s are playing the same notes in different ways. Like jazz, they appeal to specific audiences in specific ways, and their fans argue about the virtuosity of one over another.

Wow. Those were the words I wanted my brain to produce and my fingers to keyboard, but they did not so I tip my hat to Mr. Pratt! 

Vick’s Extreme Pepperoni – Photo by Jim Ellison

I have now given you the short course in Columbus Style Pizza but it would be wrong for me to send you out into the world without the fundamentals to address the arguments you will encounter as a true believer. Below I have listed the most common arguments of the contrarians with some brief rebuttals. 

The Common Knowledge Argument: 

In the nutshell, after a few derisive comments about how Columbus pizza is crap and who in their right mind would cut squares into a circle, the person will shift to “I’ve never read about Columbus Style Pizza. I did not find it in a Google search so it does not exist!” 

Response: 

In addition to nailing a copy of this post onto their door or duct taping to their laptop, let me address the “Common Knowledge” mindset in more detail. Common knowledge tells us there is pizza from Italy (Naples if you are a purist), New York City, Chicago Deep Dish, California Style pizza, and if you fancy yourself a pizza person and have spent a few years in the Midwest, you have probably heard of Detroit Style Pizza and/or St. Louis Style Pizza. Have you heard of these styles: New England Greek, Altoona, Colorado Mountain Pizza (Pie), DC Jumbo Slice, Dayton, Brier Hill, Steubenville / Ohio Valley, Grandma Pizza (PA, NJ), New Haven aPizza, Old Forge Pizza, Quad Cities, Calgary, Trenton Tomato Pie, Philly Tomato Pie, Rhode Island (Red) and Omaha? These are defined styles but not common knowledge to most.  

Common knowledge ain’t what it used to be. There is a lot of pizza diversity in the U.S. and that diversity includes Columbus Style Pizza. 

Let me take the common knowledge argument’s counter argument even farther, because people of this mind set tend to be a bit hard-headed. Let me pile on with more common knowledge that is not common knowledge. Time to shift to BBQ for a second example. Most people know, via the power of common knowledge, that there is St. Louis BBQ, Texas BBQ, Kansas City BBQ and Southern BBQ. Some of the more liberal minded may say Caribbean Jerk, too. However, most people don’t know that there are two styles of North Carolina BBQ, four styles of South Carolina BBQ and four varieties of Texas BBQ. Again, the lesson here, just because you have never heard about it, does not mean it does not exist, you just have not done your homework.   

Sparano’s Heavy Duty Pizza – Photo by Jim Ellison

The East Coast Argument – Translations in (Parentheses) 

This pizza sucks (I’ve tried one, maybe two pizza places in Columbus!). There ain’t “nothin’” as good as _____________ (insert Brooklyn, Jersey, etc.) pizza anywhere. (And you moved to or are visiting this hellhole in the Midwest for what reason?) This is just ketchup on a cracker! (I have not eaten this pizza in front of me but my culture has taught me that it is my heritage to speak loud and act like a jerk in public to show my social dominance.)

The counter argument here is easy. Thanks for letting me finish the pizza. Please go back to where you came from or us guys are gonna whack ya! 

The Steve Croyle Argument 

One does not argue with Steve Croyle, one sits back and enjoys as his systematic, passionate opinions play out on our screen. Croyle shows no hesitation, no filter and no fear to his opposition. We respect the wrath of Croyle even when we don’t agree because it comes from the head and the heart and he is not a jerk about it later. This is no counter to his argument, you just ride the wave. Note: Steve was not born in Columbus, if he was, I think he would press his back up against mine as we fight the hordes of non-believers while standing on a 30 inch pizza from Joseppi’s until they yield to us or we drop to our knees in rhetorical death.    

It is Chicago Bar / Tavern Style Pizza Argument

The response here. “Yes, we have a deep respect for our Chicago cousins but we are still different and very good.”  

I hope this leaves you with a better understanding of what Columbus Style Pizza is and equally important, what it is not. I anoint you here to go out into the world and become a defender of this style. You can pick your reason. It might be neighborhood/city pride. Or, you might decide it is a good way to support small, mom and pop businesses. In my perfect world, it would be because you like tilting windmills, seeing good manners triumph over petty egos, and prefer to fight for what is right (angles)! The greater good in this argument for advocating for this belief in Columbus Style Pizza is what I fear is a reality I don’t want to contemplate. I think that Columbus Style Pizza is on the endangered pizza styles list. A combination of homogenization, business gentrification and a fourth and fifth generation of pizza makers that will do the math and not see the numbers to justify working nights and weekends away from their loved ones to carry on a family tradition.  

Massey’s Pizza – Courtesy Rich Folk, Massey’s Pizza

If Columbus Style Pizza dies off to be replaced by generic chain pizza or dumbed-down styles from other places, replacing what was ubiquitous in Columbus from 1950 to 2000, those that doubt the style today will recognize its absence after it is gone for good. I think they will miss it. 

A wise man once said, “If Winston Churchill quotes were about pizza and beer they would be indistinguishable from Jim Ellison quotes.” That could be true. Churchill is falsely attributed with the quote, “History is written by the bictors.” However, I will appropriate the intent of that by stating, the victor of the argument for a Columbus Style of Pizza wrote the book about pizza in Columbus, and that is me. 

(Special note to the reader: One of the non-common knowledge pizza styles I listed is not a style…or is it?) Shoot me a note and let me know which one it was and why. 

You can also watch this debate play out in conversation…

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