The city of Whitehall is home to a number of central Ohio "firsts," including the area's first airfield (Norton Air Field) and one of the first modern strip-style retail centers in Town and Country.
But today, we'll talk about a central Ohio first that's tastier than the others: the pizzeria.
What began as a new item on the menu of a Grandview Heights eatery called Romeo's Italian Restaurant has morphed into a fixture in the local landscape.
Romeo's was operating in 1949 at the northeast corner of West Fifth Avenue and North Star Road when Romeo Siri and his partners, Jim and Dan Massucci, began offering pizza along with their other cuisine. Served to Romeo's diners, it was cut into rectangles, instead of the triangle-slice approach that had been typical of the way the dish was served in other restaurants.
It was a big hit with customers, just as it was becoming in other areas of the country.
Pizza has been around in relatively similar forms for some 2,000 years in Asia and Europe, with a reference to a pizza-like food called "tables" in Virgil's "Aeneid." It was essentially composed of flatbread covered with cheese, olive oil, meats and fruits.
Scattered examples of its presence exist in the United States in the 1800s, but before the 1940s, pizza consumption was limited mostly to Italian immigrants and their descendants. During World War II, veterans serving in Italy were introduced to its native cuisine, and as such, they and their new families proved to be a ready market for pizza in particular.
With the success of the new menu item added to the restaurant's offerings, the proprietors of Romeo's recognized the potential for a new venture.
In 1949, about the time Whitehall was establishing itself as a destination for shopping and living, Jim Massucci, assisted by his brother, Dan, opened the first Massey's Pizza at 4464 E. Main St.
The selection of toppings was modest compared to today's seemingly unending array -- and so were prices. An early menu shows medium and large pizzas in the $2 to $3 range, with salads for 60 cents.
Jim Massucci sold the business to Guido Casa in 1962, who sold it to his son in 1972. In 2000, brothers Jim and Dave Pallone bought Massey's from their Casa cousins.
"We were considering buying a pizza operation when the opportunity arose to buy Massey's," Jim Pallone said.
The company now has nine pizzerias in central Ohio and one in South Carolina. In addition, in 2013, the company opened in Grove City its first of four sports bar-themed pizza restaurants.
Jim Pallone called Whitehall's shop -- still open on East Main Street -- one of the chain's top performers.
"You could call this our flagship location," he said. "There was a kind of sense that Whitehall makes the best pizza.
"It brings a feeling of nostalgia to people who've moved from Whitehall, and when they come back through here, they remember Massey's as a part of having lived here, and enjoying pizza here," Pallone said.
Whitehall native Billie McComas Bower recalls her introduction to pizza by her cousin, Joan Smith, who lived across the street from her on Elaine Road.
"She introduced me to my first pizza at Massey's, and I was very hesitant to taste it, as I thought it looked awful! But it was the beginning of a food romance for me," she said.
Whenever Smith returned to visit Whitehall, she ordered half-baked pizzas from Massey's and sent them to her Washington, D.C., home.
Bower later organized a 50-year reunion of fellow graduates of East Main Street Elementary School. The group toured the school, then convened at Whitehall's Massey's to reminisce.
Jim Diuguid of Reynoldsburg recalls driving from Newark to Whitehall in the 1950s to pick up a Massey's pizza for the night shift of nurses while he worked at a hospital there.
"I'd get two pepperoni pizzas for them. There weren't any other pizza places around, and they hadn't even heard of pizza before," he said.
The family of his wife, Judy, also travelled to Whitehall from Hebron, because "that's where you went to find pizza in those days," she said.
The Pallone brothers were not new to the pizza business when they acquired Massey's. As teenagers, they worked at a Grandview restaurant called Leonardo's, and through that experience, "we had pizza in our blood," Jim Pallone said.
"But what Massey's offered was still our favorite," he added.
The opportunity to own the business was a stroke of good luck and serendipity for them, Pallone said.
"For us, it was a dream come true."
Steve McLoughlin is past president of the Whitehall Historical Society.