Jim Ellison Writes a Slice of Columbus History
The writer's new paperback celebrates the city’s mom-and-pop pizzerias.
In talking to Columbus pizzeria owners over the years, food writer and Columbus Brew Adventures co-founder Jim Ellison found them to be chatty. But when it came time to fulfill his dream of writing a book about pizza in Central Ohio, he reached roadblocks. He called, emailed, wrote letters. Nothing. The owners’ reticence remains a mystery, but he didn’t stop. His book, “Columbus Pizza: A Slice of History,” was released in November 2020.
The book solidifies pizza as Columbus’ signature food and features heritage pizzerias such as TAT Ristorante Di Famiglia, Massey’s, Rubino’s and others. Readers will learn which pizzeria sold draft beer in buckets, where to find Reuben-themed pizza and all about the origin of Mikey’s Late Night Slice. (It involves a pedicab). We talked with Ellison about his book.
What was your inspiration?
Talking to these [pizzeria] owners who said they didn’t know how they were going to make it work made me realize I have to tell these stories before they’re gone. In 2018 [Columbus Brew Adventures] was doing well but slowing down. I thought, ‘I could do a book.’ I made my pitch to the publisher in fall 2018. It was accepted before Christmas.
Did COVID-19 make this harder?
If it hadn’t been for COVID, I wouldn’t have finished. I was discouraged by people not wanting to be interviewed. The chase was killing me. I wanted it to be done by the 70th anniversary of Columbus’ first pizzeria [Romeo’s Italian Restaurant on West Fifth Avenue]. COVID made people who were difficult to interview more difficult to interview, but it gave me time to write.
How did you choose which pizzerias to include?
I wanted pizzerias from the 1950s and mom-and-pop pizza shops that are run today by the same family. The people at Massey’s were crazy helpful. You can’t write about pizza in Columbus without writing about Donatos. But when I asked for an interview, their PR guy told me to just read the book [founding family member] Jane [Grote Abell] wrote.
How did you approach your research?
I looked through newspaper archives, at menus and the Yellow Pages, which helped me determine that dates were accurate. And [The Columbus Dispatch’s “Grumpy Gourmet” Doral Chenoweth] wrote some really helpful things. I felt that connection to him. I wrote this shortly after he died. I miss him.
Is Columbus pizza really that different?
Yes. Not radically. It has a party cut, thinner crust and leans toward provolone as the dominant cheese. Our pizzas are encased in pepperoni. If St. Louis can have a style because they use a different type of cheese, then Columbus can as well. I had to fight with the publisher that this is a thing and it’s worth writing about.
What’s your goal with the book?
I truly want people who read this book to invest in supporting these mom-and-pop businesses, so that maybe they can be sustained for another generation and keep that part of our culture going.
Fun fact: In the 1950s and 1960s, green peppers were referred to as “mangoes” on Columbus pizza menus.