Tommy's Diner lunch special by Collins Laatsch

Searching for Johnny Marzetti

Philadelphia has the cheesesteak.

Boston has clam “chowda.”

And New York and Chicago are forever at odds over whose style of pizza is superior.

But did you know Columbus has its own signature dish?

Once an outsider from the East Coast, I thought Johnny Marzetti sounded like someone who might play shortstop for Reds or halfback for the Browns. Despite this lazy lasagna’s legendary following, the uninitiated often learn about it first from new friends and neighbors who eagerly share childhood memories of the dish and its local origin. That doesn’t mean everyone from the New York Times to Saveur hasn’t reheated the same tale of Teresa Marzetti naming the unassuming entrée of pasta, ground beef, tomato sauce, and cheese after her son-in-law, and how she served it in the family restaurant decades before the name Marzetti became synonymous with salad dressing. Even the Ohio History Connection seems to support the story.

Unfortunately, there’s very little meat to the myth. Though the restaurant was real (two of them in fact, run by two families both named Marzetti) not a single advertisement or menu from either over the better part of a century mentions the dish. Teresa was also very real, though the company that still bears her name is equally adamant that any relation to Johnny Marzetti is likely more folklore than fact.

But that doesn’t mean folks love it any less. It kind of makes it a legit urban legend. An Italian matriarch, fresh off the boat from Florence, pulls together some modest ingredients and creates a sensation so deceptively simple that more than a hundred years later petite cuisine and molecular gastronomy still can’t beat it? Who wouldn’t eat up that story, even if the details are still suspect? It sure beats calling it the long-lost cousin of Hamburger Helper. 

Finding the truth behind Johnny Marzetti is nearly as tough as finding it on a menu, unless you know where to look and who to ask.

“We usually have it on Mondays. That’s how it’s been for 29 years,” recalled Kathy Pappas, whose husband, Tommy has been dishing Johnny Marzetti at his eponymous West side diner for nearly three decades. “Our specials are ready to go, for people who don’t have much time for lunch. Johnny Marzetti is perfect, so we make enough for about 50 orders and we always run out.”

At Tommy’s Diner, like most places that secretly serve Johnny Marzetti, even though it’s not on the menu, it’s not exactly off the menu either—nor is there just one recipe. Most often macaroni, rotini, or bowtie all work just fine. Vegetables include onions, green pepper, and mushrooms. (Though I highly recommend throwing in some zucchini.) Choice of cheese seems to fall into three schools. Cheddar is the most popular, but mozzarella makes a strong showing as well. Tommy’s tops theirs with a generous portion of grated parm. Opinions also vary on whether it goes into the oven for a quick brown and a bubbly finish, or straight to the plate with shreds or just a sprinkle. Whether original or avant-garde, everyone seems to agree it’s not exactly a chili mac or just another name for goulash.

Nancy’s Home Cooking in Clintonville actually does have it on the menu, but only makes the comfort food classic on Tuesdays. Paul’s Fifth Avenue, India Oak Bar and Grill, and German Village Coffee Shop quietly rotate traditional, yet individual, versions through their daily specials. Kolache Republic sometimes stuffs it into their savory pastry to make it more portable, and Columbus newcomer ClusterTruck will even deliver it to your door. None of them have it on the menu. Service Bar in the Short North does, offering an upscale variation for $21. (That’s quite the price hike from the 45 cents Teresa used to charge at the restaurant back in the 1920s — maybe she did, but probably not.)

The genius and longevity of Johnny Marzetti comes from its easy and adaptable recipe. A quick Facebook query in advance of this article unleashed a flood of photos and fond recollections. People actually sent me pictures of their leftover lunch, or a casserole dish fresh from the oven, previous dinner plans scuttled and inspired by the passionate conversation and competing recipes. From grins to groans, even its detractors shared cafeteria cautionary tales and school lunch lore with a smile.

Perhaps the most telling story about the enduring popularity of Johnny Marzetti came by way of a neighbor who revealed her mother regularly makes enormous batches of it for her church, as well as gatherings at the Westgate Recreation Center.

“What’s great about it is that it’s inexpensive. You get a lot for your money, and you can add to it or leave things out,” explained Tasha Corson. “My mom used to put just hamburger in hers, but I add sausage to mine, and sometimes some chiles, to give a little kick to it.” Corson also uses a blend of cheddar and Monterey Jack along with seasonings that lean more Southwest. “The largest batch I make feeds 30 to 40, and I make it in a big stock pot. That way people can put cheese on it if they want to, or not,” she explained. “I’ve made it in the oven too, to melt the cheese. That’s why I like it, because you can really make it your own.”

Corson was actually generous enough to invite me over for dinner, along with my editor and a photographer, eager to share her take on the dish that was part of her childhood, and in turn her children’s, with total strangers. Even if the recipe and mystery surrounding it are still uncertain, the power it has to create lifelong memories and bring people together with a familiar flavor isn’t. Whether it’s served at a lunch counter, a kitchen table, or a potluck dinner, the most important ingredients they all share are creativity and community—and that’s what makes Johnny Marzetti uniquely and unmistakably Columbus. 

Johnny on the Spot

These joints still serve up the city’s long-lost culinary creation—but days and times vary

Tommy’s Diner 914 W Broad St.

Nancy’s Home Cooking 3133 N High St.

Paul’s Fifth Avenue 1565 W Fifth Ave.

India Oak Bar & Grill 590 Oakland Park Ave.

German Village Coffee Shop 193 Thurman Ave.

Kolache Republic 730 S High St.

ClusterTruck 342 E Long St.

Service Bar 1230 Courtland Ave.

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Teresa Marzetti’s Original Recipe

(maybe, maybe not)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

3⁄4 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

2 pounds lean ground beef

3 1⁄2 cups tomato sauce

1 1⁄2 pounds cheddar cheese, shredded

1 pound elbow macaroni, cooked and drained

Sauté onion in oil until limp, about 3 minutes.

Add mushrooms and fry until juices are released, about 5 minutes.

Add beef and cook, stirring, breaking up clumps, until no longer red.

Remove from heat and mix in tomato sauce and all but 1 cup of cheese.

Transfer to greased 9- by 13-inch baking dish and add macaroni.

Toss gently to mix. Scatter remaining cheese on top. Bake, uncovered, in 350-degree oven until browned and bubbling (35 to 40 minutes). Serves 10 to 12.

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