Hip to be square? New styles have shaped Columbus' pizza history

Gary Seman Jr.
ThisWeek group
Upper Arlington resident Jim Ellison (center) recently authored "Columbus Pizza: A Slice of History." He is pictured at TAT Ristorante Di Famiglia with the daughters of owners Jim and Dolores Corrova, Michelle Corrova (left) and Marianne Kirkbride.

Columbus' pizza history might not be as glamorous as New York City’s or as unique as Chicago’s, but central Ohio has its own distinct style of pie that is worthy of bragging rights, according to one local author.

Jim Ellison, commonly known by his nom de plume, CMH Gourmand, recently wrote “Columbus Pizza: A Slice of History," published by Arcadia Publishing and the History Press.

Even the most casual observers of pizza likely will recognize Columbus’ characteristic thin crust, ladled with a slightly sweet sauce seasoned with oregano, spread edge to edge with toppings and, most noticeable of all, cut into squares, also known as a party-cut style.

But that’s not the way Columbus pizza started in the 1930s – when, in some areas of the country, it was called tomato pie – and was served at a couple of local places, including TAT Ristorante Di Famiglia, which now is in east Columbus.

TAT got its start in 1929 at 409 W. Goodale St. in a neighborhood commonly known as Flytown back then, according to Ellison's book. It eventually moved to its present location at 1210 S. James Road.

The pizza "tended to be thicker,” said Ellison, 51, an Upper Arlington resident who grew up in Clintonville and ate Dante's Pizza at age 5. “It tended not to have mozzarella or provolone – maybe American or a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano.”

Dante's opened in 1973 and is at 3586 Indianola Ave. in Clintonville's Indianola Plaza.

The history of why Columbus pizzerias favored the party cut isn’t quite clear, but it is believed to be adopted from Chicago, home to the more famous deep-dish-style pizza, Ellison said.

It is believed that the style was introduced at Romeo’s – not related to the regional chain – founded in 1950 by Jimmy Massey and Romeo Sirij at the corner of West Fifth and North Star avenues.

Massey was a baker from Chicago, where square “tavern” cuts were served to hungry workers who were headed home after a beer and some cheap eats, Ellison said. Sirij, meanwhile, had roots in New Jersey and Naples, Italy, so the two were believed to have melded the two styles.

Pizzerias then began to proliferate, and the squares had bested the triangles at the time.

The style has made for some heated arguments among pizza connoisseurs.

“They cannot comprehend a square-cut pizza,” Ellison said. “It makes them crazy, disgruntled. It’s potentially a life-threatening situation.”

Some of the early major players still are around: Iacono’s, Rubino’s, Rotolo’s, Terita’s, Gatto’s and the godfather of them all, Donatos.

As Americans became more mobile and Columbus expanded, new styles of pizza emerged, and chains popular elsewhere penetrated central Ohio’s right-angled fortress.

Locally, such names as Mikey’s Late Night Slice, Harvest Pizzeria, Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza and Live Music and GoreMade Pizza have emerged.

Chris Crader, “head harvester” for Grow Restaurants, parent company of Harvest Pizzeria, said he believed Columbus pizza had grown monotonous. So 10 years ago, he worked with a baker to perfect the dough made for the pizza.

“It wasn’t just an afterthought,” Crader said. “It has to be a strong foundation from which to build.”

In other words, it had to have a slight sourdough flavor, be baked with some wood and come out slightly charred, he said.

Harvest Pizzeria shops also use premium, mostly locally grown or produced ingredients for a memorable experience and sustainable business practices.

“When we started 10 years ago, we looked at this big-picture thing: supporting a lot of local farmers,” Crader said.

As a difficult 2020 because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic draws to a close, the future of Columbus pizza is unclear, Ellison said.

To weather the first wave of coronavirus lockdowns, with more potentially to come, pizzeria owners are having to reinvent themselves in a volatile market, he said.

Essentially, the mom-and-pop pizzerias are getting closer and closer to the fringes, Ellison said. National chains can gobble up real estate and have considerable buying power, making it easier for them to buy cheaper ingredients and sell inexpensive pizza, he said.

For the small, one-store pizzerias, the labor pool is shallow, and current generations don’t necessarily want to keep the tradition going, Ellison said.

“The challenges these guys have, and these were challenges before COVID-19, for smaller pizza chains, it’s hard for them to grow,” he said.

Eric Rummel, owner of Pizza Primo Grill & More in Worthington, said independent operators have one thing going that chains do not – the personal touch.

“I’ve always found us mom-and-pops have a pretty good following,” Rummel said. “Unlike the chains, we have roots in the community. We sponsor a lot of stuff at the schools in some part. You always have to roll with the punches.

"I feel like we’re going to hang in there, the mom-and-pops.”

gseman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekGary