Midwestern pizza. NO, NO, WAIT! Don't scroll away just yet! I know that merely the combination of "Midwest" and "pizza" are enough to make some pizza geeks look away, but there is a case to be made here, and I'm going to make it.
Owner-operated pizzeria? Check. Been doing it for 50-plus years? Check. Pizza served with a slice of attitude? Check. Carefully sought-out ingredients and the thoughtful eye of a craftsman? Yeah, they've got that too.
Columbus, Ohio, has a long tradition of independently owned pizza joints serving up a thin crust, Midwestern-style pies featuring lots of toppings and crisp, curly pepperoni from the Ezzo Sausage company. Pizzerias with names like Tommy's, Massey's, Flyer's, and Capuano's — every resident in the 'burbs and surrounding C-bus neighborhoods has their favorite. Some of you may also be familiar with Donato's, the chain that was founded in 1963 and briefly owned by McDonald's. While Donato's now dominates the Columbus-style pizza market with more than 170 locations, neighborhood joints like Rubino's Pizza in Bexley have held the hearts of Columbans since 1954.
Rubino's knows what it does well, and that's reflected in its modest menu. You can basically choose from among pizza, spaghetti, and salad. The end. They know you don't need all of the other crap if they can do those three things well. I've always thought that that methodology was a thing of beauty. Watching one of the owners make the pizza, it's quick to see the method hasn't changed much in 50 years. Pre-sheeted pizza skins, so thin they look like tortillas, are pulled from the cooler and tossed into a bed of cornmeal. The pizza is docked and topped with the chunky sauce, sliced provolone, and the appropriate toppings before being fed into the ancient-looking ovens.
The pizzas arrived at the table steaming. The crust has an amazing crispness for how thin it is. As one of my fellow diners noted, "It's almost like eating pizza chips — that thin and crunchy." It was probably the most efficient delivery of cheese, sauce, and pepperoni that I've had in a long time. The cheese pizza, while fine, is not the standout here.
The pepperoni pie, laden with what seems like hundreds of those little buggers, is simply phenomenal. Though we didn't try it this day, Rubino's makes its sauasge in house, another indicator of just how dedicated this family is to its craft. Another holdover from the '50s to note: There are no pizza boxes at Rubino's. All to-go pizzas are wrapped in an awesome wax-paper pyramid.
It seemed that everyone at Rubino's was a regular. In fact, Rubino's claims they know about 75 percent of the people who walk in the door. Little did we know, we were part of that statistic. At our visit, one of the second-generation owners, Karen Marchese, recognized my mom after last seeing her in high school 30 years ago. Small world, and small pizza shop.
It's clear that places like Rubino's and other Midwestern joints will never be fully adopted into the greater pizza movement of this last decade. For many folks, including my mother, pizza cognition plays a huge part in the fascination with Columbus pizza. It's the first slice folks there were exposed to and will always be their favorite.
To many, the thought of provolone on a pizza is enough to discount it completely. Really though, the cheese takes a back burner to the crispness of the crust and the quality of toppings found on these pizzas. Rubino's is the pinnacle of that thinking, and much like how Sally's Apizza taunts me every time I visit Slice, this was a hauntingly good visit.
2643 East Main Street, Columbus OH 43209 614-235-1700; rubinosbexley.com