Hot pizza, cold cheese, and an family story from eastern Ohio
One of the largest pizza appreciation groups on Facebook is based in Ohio. About 36,000 people belong to The Pizza Connoisseurs of Columbus. Unsurprisingly, discussions there often turn into debates. Posts about pineapple on pizza spark firestorms, and god help the misguided soul who thinks people want to see an order from a national chain. Few subjects, though, are as controversial as DiCarlo’s.
DiCarlo’s is an import from Steubenville, Ohio, a town on the state’s eastern edge, about seven miles of West Virginia panhandle away from Pennsylvania.
Steubenville is only two-and-a-half hours east of Columbus, but DiCarlo’s distinctive “Ohio River Valley-style” pie is out of place in central Ohio. Locals find it baffling. Columbus pizza enthusiasts post that it “looks like a Lunchable.” But it’s been good enough for Steubenville for seventy-five years, and good enough to support other locations in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, plus one outlier in Myrtle Beach.
Once cooked to crisp, golden-brown perfection, the base is removed from the oven. Now, here’s the crucial step: The cook heaps on cold cheese and any other toppings, often just pepperoni or sausage, before serving.
So what is it? To make the controversial dish, a cook portions homemade dough into a square pan. Next comes sauce and a very light application of cheese—provolone, shredded in-house daily. Then the soon-to-be pizza is loaded into a piping hot deck oven. Nothing too crazy so far, right? Once cooked to crisp, golden-brown perfection, the base is removed from the oven. Now, here’s the crucial step: The cook heaps on cold cheese and any other toppings, often just pepperoni or sausage, before serving.
The story begins at the end of WWII, when a G.I. named Primo DiCarlo regaled his family with tales of a sensational dish that he’d tried while stationed in Italy. Primo’s father, Michael, owned a popular bakery in Steubenville. He was already making crisp, Italian-style flatbreads, and Primo adapted them into the provolone-heaped pizzas at the first DiCarlo’s location, which opened in 1945.
That helps explain the cold toppings, says Primo’s granddaughter Anna, now the marketing director for DiCarlo’s. Primo thought the roaring ovens that crisped the cracker-like crust were too hot for heaps of cheese and pepperoni. The family also liked the flavor of an unmelted cheese. “When you melt cheese, it all tastes the same,” she says. “You could go to the store and pick out some artificial product, and melted, you couldn’t tell the difference. When you taste our cheese unmelted, you can really taste the cheese—and it’s delicious. You’ll be hooked from the first slice.” That is, as long as you go in with an open mind. “People like what they like,” says Anna.
She’s proud of her shop’s reputation. “We’re not famous for our toppings,” she says. “We’re not famous for other menu items. We’re famous for this pizza.” It’s a showcase for immigrant adaptability and heartland ingenuity. And in nearly eight decades, the pizza Primo pioneered has spread beyond just DiCarlo’s, to other popular Ohio River Valley-style slice shops including Ambridge, Pennsylvania’s Police Station Pizza and Pittsburgh’s Beto’s Pizza.
The newest DiCarlo’s location is opening in Columbus this month—to the excitement and chagrin of the opinionated pizza heads on Facebook.