A lifelong fan investigates the curious origin and the sad decline of Columbus's signature dish.

I grew up with Johnny Marzetti. I guess I assumed everybody did. I've since learned I was wrong. I learn that a lot the older I get.

Who's Johnny Marzetti, you ask? It's not a “who,” it's a “what.” And if you have to ask, you're probably not from around here, are you? Simply put, Johnny Marzetti is a baked casserole of noodles, ground beef, tomatoes and cheese. My mom made it the best, of course, all creamy and steamy and filling and good. But I also had Johnny Marzetti scooped onto my pastel-green sectioned school lunch tray on a weekly basis growing up in Westerville in the 1970s. If that wasn't enough, there was Johnny Marzetti at the sports banquets, neighborhood potlucks, family reunions. I ate a lot of Johnny Marzetti.

But after the Wall Street Journal, of all sources, devoted a page in a weekend edition to Johnny Marzetti last May, I realized I hadn't thought of the dish in years, much less eaten it. The Journal story was headlined “Hello, Columbus,” and was the latest installment in its “United Plates Field Guide to Regional Dishes” series, dubbing the comfort-food casserole of my youth as the signature dish of Ohio. I raved: “Johnny Marzetti! I used to love that stuff.” I was surprised when I caught odd looks from a few coworkers. “Johnny Marzetti?” a few asked. They'd never heard of Johnny.

My curiosity was piqued. What had happened to Johnny Marzetti? I wanted to know more. What I discovered was more interesting than I'd ever imagined. The dish I'd grown up with had a history that was almost certainly built on a complete fabrication. And Michelle Obama, of all people, might have contributed to its demise.

I first turned to my old stomping grounds in Westerville to begin my journey into the heart of Johnny Marzetti. I figured I'd start by visiting one of my old schools on Johnny Marzetti day, eat with some students, talk to some lunch ladies. I Googled the Westerville schools lunch menu. No Johnny Marzetti. I searched the lunch menus of some other area districts: Grandview and Gahanna, Worthington and Whitehall, Grove City and Groveport. I called the number for food services at the Columbus City Schools. The woman who answered laughed. She knew Johnny Marzetti, all right, but said the schools hadn't served it for years.

I was stunned. I broadened my search, Googling “school lunch menu Johnny Marzetti.” To my relief, a few schools popped up. The West Branch district, near Alliance, served Johnny Marzetti to elementary and middle school students on a recent Tuesday, with corn, a mixed green salad, fried apples and milk. Miller High School and Millcreek Elementary in the Southern Local district near New Straitsville served Johnny Marzetti, steamed peas, fruit cocktail and fat-free milk on a Wednesday. The closest public school district to Columbus that I could find with Johnny Marzetti on the menu was Lakewood Local Schools in Hebron, near Buckeye Lake.

I called Jennifer Stover, the district's food services director. Stover has been serving school lunches for 19 years. “What happened?” I asked. “When did schools stop serving Johnny Marzetti?”

That's when I learned about Michelle Obama's role. Stover didn't pin it on the former First Lady specifically. She said it was the law that reformed school lunches in 2010. But after doing a bit of reading, I came to a conclusion: Michelle Obama was an accessory to Marzetti's disappearance. When Barack Obama first took office, Michelle endeavored to use her newfound position and influence to battle childhood obesity. It was a noble cause, and her passion became the inspiration for the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. That law reimbursed districts that served meals with more green vegetables, fruits and whole grains—none of which finds its way into even the most creative Johnny Marzetti recipe.

“We get an extra 6 cents for meals that meet the standards, and we send in our menus to be certified,” Stover says. “They need to have a bean or legume, an orange or red vegetable, a starch, a dark green vegetable and whole grains, even in the pizza crust. It's kind of funny when I talk about it, but it's not funny in the lunchrooms because the kids don't eat that stuff. They don't like it.”

Stover, however, still serves Johnny Marzetti. “I still make it with egg noodles,” she says. “I'll probably get in trouble for saying that, but the kids really like it. And if they eat it, I know they're getting a good, home-cooked meal.”

On a weekday in December, Stover invited me out to Lakewood High School to share Johnny Marzetti with the students. She said she'd been carrying the same recipe for 19 years, from lunch-service jobs with Coshocton, Midview and now Lakewood. Her recipe feeds about 600 and calls for 72 pounds of ground beef, three cups of minced onion, 16 50-ounce cans of tomato soup, four No. 10 cans of crushed tomatoes and eight No. 10 cans of tomato sauce, four cups of sugar, 10 pounds of shredded American cheese, 10 pounds of shredded mozzarella cheese and 30 pounds of egg noodles, with 10 additional pounds of both cheeses for the topping. The whole thing is then baked at 325 for 30 minutes.

Head cook Marsha Parlet whipped up the day's batch and spooned out a bowl for me. It was the first Marzetti I'd eaten in at least 20 years, and by the second fork full, I think I caught myself purring. “Do you like it?” Parlet asked. The pace of my shoveling was all the answer she needed. “I like it, too,” she said. “I don't serve the kids anything I don't like.”

Parlet says it's equally popular with the students. “When we serve Marzetti, most of the kids take it. They like the homemade food. In this busy world, no one has the time to cook like they used to. They love my macaroni and cheese, and they love my Marzetti.”

Bryce Nichols, 17, from Hebron, said he has study hall second period and can smell when it's Marzetti day. “It's so good,” he said. A pair of 15-year-old sophomores, Madison Linn and Bella Findlay, both said they like it when Marzetti is on the menu. “The sauce, the noodles, the meat—it's good,” Findlay said. The girls were surprised when I told them Lakewood was one of the last districts in Central Ohio that still serves Johnny Marzetti. “That's cool,” Findlay said, standing up to head to her next class. I suddenly felt bad for the kids in Westerville. Maybe their lunches were healthier, but I doubt they tasted any better.

Now I wanted to look a little deeper into how Johnny Marzetti came to be. The Wall Street Journal indicated that it had Columbus roots. I guess I'd never given it much consideration. I suppose I thought Johnny Marzetti was some quick, easy thing soldiers whipped up over a campfire. The name had always conjured images of the Civil War in my head—you know, “Johnny Reb” and “When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah.” That kind of thing. I was probably learning about the Civil War one period and eating Johnny Marzetti the next. Who knows?

But Google “Johnny Marzetti” and you'll get hundreds, maybe thousands, of recipes and blog posts of fond remembrances from baby boomers like me about the Johnny Marzetti of their youth. Many repeat the same tale about how Johnny Marzetti originated in the kitchen of Marzetti's Restaurant—which first opened across from Ohio State University in 1896, the year Teresa Piancentini Marzetti emigrated from Italy to the United States— and closed its final Downtown location at 16 E. Broad Street in 1972, the year Teresa Marzetti died at the age of 93. The story is cited on such purportedly authoritative sources as the Ohio History Connection's website. It makes good, logical sense. But it's probably not true.

“I think there's a lot of folklore behind that connection between the Marzetti restaurants and the dish Johnny Marzetti,” says Stefanie Coffman, senior consumer services manager for the T. Marzetti Co., which spun off from Marzetti's restaurants in 1950 to begin producing and distributing their popular salad dressings and dips, which are still distributed across the U.S. today. “Based on the records we have internally, there doesn't seem to be any connection. It was never on the menu in the restaurants, and we don't have any documentation that would connect Johnny Marzetti, the dish, to the T. Marzetti Co.”

“It was just all made up,” says Rob Felty, the director of business development and the unofficial historian of the T. Marzetti Co., after he produced an in-house documentary on the company's heritage. “I think a lot of people have made a lot of assumptions for a lot years, and it just keeps getting repeated.” Felty wishes the connection was real. “It would be a fun story for the company.”

So it's not a Columbus dish after all? Well, not so fast. Murky origins or not, there can be no denying that Johnny Marzetti's roots grow deep here. A search of the Columbus Dispatch archives unveiled early records of a John Marzetti. On July 21, 1871—just 20 days after the Dispatch's first edition—an item appeared that said, “This morning John Marzetti, confectioner, fruiter and general dealer in all the luxuries of the season received from Loganport, Indiana, a carload of watermelons which are described to be the best stock ever brought here so early in the season. Those fond of melons will find good ones at Marzetti's at very reasonable prices.”

Over the next 25 years, Marzetti would build a small business empire, selling everything from fruits and liquors to cigars and oysters from a stand, first at 31 N. High St. and later a block north at Gay and High streets. It also appears he opened several small restaurants. Three short items in the Dispatch edition from Sept. 17, 1875, state, “John Marzetti has the finest dining parlors in the city.” “Go to John Marzetti's and get a square meal.” And finally: “A regular dinner every day at John Marzetti's.”

Before he died, on Christmas Day in 1899, Marzetti had become one of the city's leading citizens, with numerous real estate holdings, including the entire northwest corner of High and Gay. He also provided the lion's share of the funds needed to build St. John the Baptist Catholic Church at the corner of Lincoln and Hamlet streets. It still serves as the center for the city's Italian community and home to Columbus's Italian Festival.

By 1918, quarter-page display ads for Marzetti's Restaurant—the one founded by Teresa and her husband, Joseph Marzetti, at 1548 N. High Street—began appearing in the Dispatch. The two Marzetti families were not directly related, however, and through more than a century of the two families' prosperous business ventures in the city, at no time was the dish Johnny Marzetti ever mentioned in stories or ads by either family. That connection between the dish and the restaurant began, it seems, only after Teresa Marzetti's 1972 death.

That doesn't mean the dish Johnny Marzetti was a Johnny-come-lately. A recipe for a dish named “John Marzetti” appeared in the Dispatch on April 11, 1916. It was the first reference I could find to any dish resembling what I grew up with. The 1916 version, however, was noticeably different, calling for a pound of “fresh pork” instead of ground beef, and spicy, calling for not only a teaspoon of chili powder, but one to four teaspoons of cayenne pepper, along with an onion, a pound of cream cheese and egg noodles.

After that, however, no other mention of Johnny Marzetti appeared in the Dispatch until 1953, in a feature on casseroles under the headline, “Chores Disappear: Casserole Prepared With Minimum Work.” It marked the beginning of a casserole boom in America, as magazines catering to housewives began pouring out recipes for the fix-it-and-forget-it baked dinners. The 1953 recipe in the Dispatch was christened “John Marzetti” and called for both ground beef and ground pork, as well as green peppers, onions, Campbell's tomato soup and spaghetti. Three years later, in 1956, then-Dispatch food editor Barbara Myers published a recipe for “Johnny Marzetti” that eliminated the pork and added mushrooms. “Casserole cookery is the easiest we know—with Johnny Marzetti at the top of the list,” she wrote. “It's everybody's favorite.”

By 1963, a new food editor, Mary Pegg, had taken over at the Dispatch, and in an Aug. 11 column, she tried to set the record straight. “Fashions prevail in foods as well as in clothes,” she wrote. “These last few years, casserole dishes have had their day in the sun and like many another overdone idea this one-dish meal, with amazing combinations therein, did reach a saturation point.”

“None the less, there are wonderful casserole combinations that had been around for a long, long time, and they are here to stay. One of the favorites is ground beef, noodles, vegetables and cheese. There are many variations on this recipe theme, but in our part of the country, the name ‘Johnny Marzetti' identifies the two basic ingredients—ground beef and noodles. Many Ohio families have a treasured recipe for this dish that has served two or three generations of potluck dinners, so the ‘original' recipe is for most of us the one we grew up with.”

“The Marzetti family name is well known in the Columbus area,” Pegg wrote, “but ‘Johnny Marzetti' is not from the immediate family.” Apparently no one listened.

Pegg didn't offer up an explanation for the casserole's namesake, and now I understand why. I searched high and low, through hundreds of accounts, and I couldn't find a solid explanation, either. Not knowing, however, didn't diminish its popularity. In the years that followed, Johnny Marzetti recipes proliferated, the variations among its four basic ingredients of meat, tomatoes, noodles and cheese limited only by imagination. Elbow macaroni? Egg noodles? Spaghetti? Whatever your preference.

Ground beef? Ground sausage? Both? Why not?

Tomatoes? Tomato paste? Tomato soup? All acceptable.

And cheeses? It's usually sharp cheddar that makes for gooey goodness. But parmesan? A little mozzarella? It's your Johnny Marzetti. No one's going to say you're wrong.

Beyond that, recipes included mushrooms, onions, green peppers, olives. Some added a dash of sugar. There are even variations on the name of the dish. Generally speaking, if you're from Wisconsin or Minnesota or the like, you might know it as goulash. If you're from northern New England, you likely remember it as American Chop Suey, and your Massachusetts grandmother's recipe probably says “brown the hamburg” instead of “brown the hamburger.” Some even call it slumgullion, though I have no idea where that word originates and I'm pretty sure I'd have never touched anything named slumgullion.

By the early 1970s, Johnny Marzetti was being advertised in the Big Bear grocery store fliers at 79 cents a pound at the deli counter, and it was being served at the Downtown Lazarus diners, including the Highlander Grill in the west basement and the Copper Kettle in the Downtown annex.

It still survives in certain corners of Columbus. Plank's Café & Pizzeria on Parsons Avenue has been serving Johnny Marzetti as long as anyone can remember, and the memories are long there. The restaurant is owned by John Plank, the grandson of the founder, Walter Plank Jr., who opened his restaurant in 1939. Kelly Black has been the cook at Plank's for 32 years, and her time at the grill overlapped Nellie Moore, a Plank's cook for 46 years. Black says she uses Nellie's recipe. “We don't like to change the recipes at Plank's,” Black says. “We have a loyal clientele. They like things the way they are. I don't even let the salesmen change the brands of the ingredients we use. You change the brands, you change the taste.”

Black recites the ingredients in her Johnny Marzetti. When I ask about proportions, she answers, “Oh, honey, I don't measure anything. I never have. Nellie never did, either.”

She confessed, however, that “personally, I don't like it. I don't like cooked tomatoes. But they love it here. When we make it, we always sell out.”

There's even a new Johnny Marzetti in town. Middle West Spirits' new Service Bar restaurant at 1230 Courtland Ave., which opened to rave reviews in October, features a dish named Michelone Marzetti. It's the creation of chef Avishar Barua. The 2005 Columbus Academy graduate says he grew up with Johnny Marzetti. School lunch “was the only thing I really looked forward to,” he says. “My parents are from Bangladesh, and the school lunches were filled with things I didn't get to have at home.”

His modernized Marzetti combines the past and the present with a nod to co-owner Ryan Lang, whose mother's maiden name is Michelone. Lang's grandmother, Barua says, is a fantastic cook of Abruzzi heritage, with a stockpile of secret recipes. The dish includes homemade noodles, a “Sunday sauce” derived from Lang's family cookbook and Locatelli Pecorino Romano cheese—“his mom insisted that if we didn't use that cheese, we'd be in trouble,” says Barua. Instead of ground beef, the Michelone Marzetti is served with a large meatball, which Barua says should be smashed into the pasta and sauce.

Barua isn't concerned that serving a gourmet version of Johnny Marzetti is akin to making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. He embraces the notion. “People are trying to steer away from the food they grew up with when, in fact, they should be proud of it. What's wrong with that? I think a lot of people are looking at the wrong places for heritage. It's already here. And it's OK to like it.”