How Ezzo Sausage Co. became the nation's cup-and-char pepperoni darling

Darren Ezzo doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. “There's no reason to pay attention to a company that grinds meat all day,” he says. But pizza-lovers and national publications have noticed Ezzo Sausage Co., the fourth-generation business Darren runs with his brother Jonathan. Recently, The New York Times, Eater, Thrillist and The Wall Street Journal have written about the company, based near Hilliard, for doing something it's done since 1978—making pepperoni.

“In New York, they're talking about this stuff like we invented it yesterday,” Darren says. “I told a bunch of people in the city that there are people in Columbus that have been using this stuff for 40 years. [Curly pepperoni] is not a new trend.”

But curly pepperoni (aka cup-and-char pepperoni)—as ubiquitous in Columbus as square-cut pizza—is what people on the East Coast want. The bowl-shaped pepperonis (a shape that occurs naturally as the sausage is heated because of its edible collagen casing) are an Ezzo specialty. Locally, you can spot Ezzo's handiwork at Rubino's Pizza, Flyers Pizza & Subs, Massey's Pizza, Tommy's Pizza, Adriatico's, GoreMade Pizza and Paulie Gee's Short North.

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The 50-person company makes 130,000 pounds of pepperoni, sausage and salami a week to distribute to pizza shops across the country. Three years ago, Ezzo expanded to a brand-new, 78,000-square-foot facility to make room for the demand from pizza shops that want something beyond the mass-produced commodity brands pushed by distributors.

The Little Guy

The pepperoni sector is cutthroat. Like many categories in the food industry, most major brands are owned by one of three large companies. In the case of pepperoni, the brands Carando, Margherita and Armour-Eckrich are owned by Smithfield, a subsidiary of the Chinese conglomerate WH Group. Applegate, Burke and Fontanini brands are owned by Hormel Foods. The rest are the property of Tyson Foods.

“What do [Chinese conglomerates] know about pepperoni? What do they know about food? They don't know anything about it,” Darren says. “They think that people just want to buy on price. But we never go after price people. The restaurants who buy our stuff want quality, flavor, less grease and oil. The restaurants who buy their stuff want a red circle to put on their pizza.”

Price is a big deal. The commodity brands, says Darren, choose their ingredients based on how much the end cost should be. But Ezzo's strategy has been different since the beginning: It doesn't skimp on ingredients or process. Its sausages are made in small batches with whole seasonings, fresh pork picnic shoulder—not trimmings—and ground chuck. “We don't let our accountants dictate what we make food out of,” he says. “We don't want to just make some commodity pepperoni because it matches the price point out in the market.”

It's an uphill battle for companies like Ezzo because, Darren says, once he wins an account, a large company will go to a distributor and cut costs to bring the price down. “They're selling pepperoni like it's a loss leader. They're bastardizing what we do. ... [The big brands] would love nothing more than to see us lose market share, so that they can buy us for a cheap price.”

It's not surprising that quality-focused pizzerias and delicatessens gravitate toward Ezzo's product. Perhaps it's the taste that attracts them. Or perhaps it's Darren. Either way, one of the last family-owned pepperoni manufacturers in the country doesn't look to be in danger of losing market share. In fact, it's growing. From April to July, Darren says, Ezzo's weekly run grew by 5,000 pounds.

The Family Business

Sausage has a long history in the Ezzo family. Before World War II, Darren and Jonathan's Italian-born great-grandfather, Dominic Ezzo, made sausage and sold it in his Canastota, New York, grocery store. As the business grew, the family opened a sausage plant in Indiana in the 1960s. Darren and Jonathan's father, Bill Ezzo, and their uncle, Scott, started their own venture on the South Side of Columbus in 1978, and Ezzo Sausage Co. was born. (In 2016, Ezzo relocated to the West Side from its South Side location on Lockbourne Road after 38 years.) An initial account with Domino's Pizza gave the company its start in the pizza industry. But as Domino's grew, the family couldn't keep up with demand and switched its focus to mom-and-pop restaurants in the Columbus area.

Darren and Jonathan started out folding and labeling boxes in the family factory as children. Their father would give the pair $20 and would later inspect each box. “For every label that was crooked, he'd take a dime away from us,” Darren recalls. “That was his way of teaching us to work. You could put together 200 boxes, but it doesn't make any difference if the labels are on crooked. It was a lesson. He was a funny guy like that. That's how we were raised. It was about quality.” Bill, who played football at Ohio State University for Woody Hayes, still uses his attention to detail today, managing the big-picture parts of the company from his part-time home in Florida. That includes signing the checks. “He can tell you if a machine is breaking down, because the electric bill is higher. He'll tell us to check the grinder to see if the bearings are down,” Darren says.

Eventually, Darren left the family business to seek a degree at Columbia College Chicago and began working as a freelance graphic designer. A movie and a conversation with friends brought him back.

“I was living in Chicago. I was doing design, and it was paying the bills. I was getting by,” Darren remembers. “And then I saw ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi.'” The documentary about a pair of sushi artists—a father, Jiro Ono, and his son—brought up some questions that Darren needed to confront. In the film, Jiro's son apprentices for years with the expectation that he will carry on his father's legacy. “I watched it, and it gave me goosebumps. … It hit me. Some people don't have a choice in what they do. And I felt like I didn't have a choice, because pepperoni is just what my family does.”

While the movie had him thinking about family history and legacy, a conversation over a meal of hamburgers sparked Darren's return to the family business. “This isn't just ground chuck,” he remembers telling his Chicago friends. “There's got to be some bacon fat in there.” And when they asked him how he knew, he revealed his background. They called him crazy for not being a part of the family business. And so he returned to the pepperoni industry in 2013 with some new insight and a personal challenge: “Why can't I blaze my own trail just because it's a company that happens to have my name on it?”

Although Darren sees himself as more of a brand ambassador than a salesperson, he could write a book on the art of persuasion. His marketing arsenal includes a family recipe, a gift for gab and, notably, an Instagram account, which Darren created to chronicle his travels to client pizzerias. As it turns out, cup-and-char pepperoni has become a social media magnet. Ezzo's Instagram feed, which features a flurry of red-dotted pizzas from across the nation, may look repetitive, but it showcases like-minded pizza artisans who admire one another's work and believe there's a growing market of customers who appreciate high-quality ingredients.

Winning Over a Pepperoni Skeptic

The Brooklyn-based pizzeria Paulie Gee's is one such Ezzo evangelist. In April, I met its owner, Paulie Gee, in person at his namesake outpost in the Short North to talk about pepperoni. (Darren says that talking to Paulie Gee is like talking to Larry David, and he's not wrong.) I quickly learned that Gee—who, in addition to Columbus, has wood-fired pizza shops in Brooklyn, Baltimore and Chicago—is opinionated and has a list of ingredients starting with “p” that he's vowed to never put on pizzas.

“Pesto is cliché. Pasta? No. Forget it. Potatoes? No starch on starch. And poultry? No chicken on pizza because it gets too dry. Peppers? I'm not a fan. They don't go well with mozzarella, and I never liked the ‘everything' pizza, especially in a wood-fired environment,” says the artisanal pizza maker. Also on Gee's prohibited list: pineapples, pickles and, until recently, pepperoni.

“Pepperoni was at the top of that list, but Darren challenged me,” Gee recalls. After Darren became acquainted with TJ Gibbs, Paulie Gee's Short North franchisee, the Ezzo co-owner visited New York and told Gee in person that he would persuade the pizzeria owner to buy his pepperoni. “I tried it one night,” Gee says. “He was very aggressive.”

It was the taste—and the curl—that won Gee over. It's all about the grease, Gee says. With flat pepperoni, the grease goes all over the pizza, mixing with the oil from the cheese. But with cupping pepperoni, the grease stays in one place. And for Paulie Gee favorites like the Hellboy pizza, which also features honey, it's essential to keep the liquid to a minimum. (While the Short North location uses Ezzo's soppressata for its version of the Hellboy, Paulie Gee's Brooklyn slice shop uses its pepperoni.)

When asked about the popularity of Ezzo's style of pepperoni, Gee begins scrolling through the Ezzo Instagram account while assessing which shops featuring the Ezzo product get the most likes. Prince Street Pizza, a Manhattan pizzeria, made pepperoni cups famous on the East Coast, says Gee, who quickly admonishes his peer. “But not Ezzo. He doesn't use Ezzo. His mistake.” Multiple restaurants who share the same distributor claim they introduced Ezzo to the New York pizza scene. The pizzeria Emily and its Detroit-style sibling pizzeria Emmy Squared lay claim, but Gee credits another pizzeria on the Lower East Side—Scarr's Pizza—with finding Ezzo first. “[Scarr's] has a lot of exposure in New York, and the pizza community got wind of [the pepperoni]. Darren did a good job of getting his name out, his product out,” Gee says while continuing to scroll Instagram. “He goes to all the best places.”

After Paulie Gee leaves the High Street restaurant, I join a friend at the bar to try the Joe Peppitoni, a wood-fired pizza with edge-to-edge cups of insanely crispy pepperonis. Together, the two of us, both Columbus natives, traverse time, crossing the rare threshold where the tastes in front of us intersect with our childhood memories of the same flavors. As we reminisce about youth soccer pizza parties and how we would gently pull the pepperoni cups from pizza slices, leaving dimples in the dough, without realizing it, we each grab another piece. And before we know it, the pizza is gone.