There's no place like Columbus for Wizard of Za

J.R. McMILLAN
Spencer Saylor's Wizard of Za pizzas have gained a following on Instagram. He plans to open a brick-and-mortar location in Clintonville.

If you haven't heard about Wizard of Za, you're not alone.

Spencer Saylor's underground pizza empire has been operating inconspicuously for months exclusively on Instagram. The improbable story of how a singer-songwriter from Youngstown ended up with a list of thousands of strangers waiting to try one of his handcrafted creations has been equally elusive – until now.

"When I was a kid, I loved making pizza with my dad," Saylor said. "He'd make the dough, and I'd help put on the toppings. Homemade pizza was just part of growing up in Youngstown."

Music also was a family tradition. Saylor's father played guitar, an instrument he likewise picked up at an early age, and his mother loved to sing. His grandmother was a music teacher, and his grandfather used to tour with Johnny Cash, Saylor said.

So when Saylor pursued songwriting, it wasn't exactly shocking. But getting invited to open for John Mayer was a surprise.

"I used to sit in my bedroom listening to his songs since I was probably 7," Saylor said. "I never thought in a million years we'd be sharing the same stage. I hoped I might see him someday from the nosebleed seats of an arena. Opening for him was actually the first time I saw him perform."

As he pursued music, Saylor also had a steady gig in the world of event planning, which afforded him the opportunity to travel.

That time on the road provided the original inspiration for Wizard of Za; he set out to create a visual diary of exceptional pizza discovered along his various travel routes.

But when the pandemic canceled nearly everything in March, he started to hone another craft from home, reinventing the comfort food of his childhood and chronicling that journey on Instagram. Saylor pulled back the proverbial curtain, and more than a few folks started to take notice.

"The more photos I'd post, the more people asked to try one of my pies," Saylor said. "Once friends and family got their hands on it, they started posting to their Instagram accounts. The next thing I knew, I had people I didn't know reaching out wanting one, as well. I'd thought about maybe opening a restaurant two or three years from now. It's hard to believe it's only been four months."

Time somehow moves slowly and quickly during a crisis.

Although opening a restaurant at a time when so many other eateries are struggling to stay open may seem half-baked, Saylor's savory side hustle isn't. Ohio State Buckeyes and Columbus Blue Jackets players whose seasons were sidelined were among his earliest unofficial endorsements, as were a surreal mix of celebrities who happened to pass through Columbus and heard rumors about this random guy slinging serious slices, from chef Robert Irvine to John C. Reilly.

With fewer than 100 posts, the Wizard of Za Instagram account has amassed more than 10,000 followers.

The curiosity and enthusiasm are deserved.

The crunchy focaccia crust is covered in sesame seeds on the bottom instead of a dusting of corn meal, giving it an unexpected nuttiness.

The spicy homemade sauce and cup-and-char Ezzo pepperoni are balanced by bubbly mozzarella and provolone in between.

Saylor hits every pie with a drizzle of hot honey, grated Pecorino Romano and a little fresh basil.

His vodka-sauce variation with fresh mozzarella, which he also makes himself, is a culinary case study on how simple, yet sophisticated, pizza can be.

Columbus-style pizza is an enigma struggling for distinction among a dozen or so signature styles in the region. Thin crusts and square cuts are the obvious attributes, but even that widely accepted definition may be dangerously narrow.

So is Wizard of Za the classic, Columbus-style pizza? Definitely not. But if that definition is distilled to something more essential – singular and authentic, steeped in family history and made with a passion for the city and its people – then yes, Wizard of Za is everything we love about pizza in Columbus.

Saylor's secret brick-and-mortar location in Clintonville, which is slated to open soon, will maintain the Wizard of Za's speakeasy mystique, with no obvious signage outside.

Although some might dismiss such a strategy as shrewd marketing or simply pretentious, Saylor said, it's actually the opposite.

"I'm a one-man show, and the only reason there is a list is so I can keep up," he said. "But even with a restaurant and doing this full-time, I still want everyone to feel like they've discovered something new and unique.

"Columbus has solid pizza all around. But I think Columbus has the power to make its mark like some of the better-known pizza destinations in the country, like New Haven, New York and Chicago. To be one of those places people come to Columbus to visit – that's the kind of list I'd like to be on someday."

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