July 22, 2020

Sara Bir

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Who’s the Real Johnny Marzetti?

A cafeteria classic from central Ohio

American chop suey. Chili mac. Goulash. Slumgullion. They’re all in the same macaroni-ground-beef-and-tomato family—stovetop comfort classics from the working-class weeknight tradition. Ohio’s favorite ground-beef casserole is kin to those dishes, but not quite a sibling. It goes by the name Johnny Marzetti.

A proper Marzetti is baked, unlike its stovetop cousins. In the oven, the flavors marry, the cheese browns, and the edges get appealingly crusty. Think of it as lasagna for the hoi polloi. You make it when you need to feed a crowd: a soccer team, a church congregation, a house full of college roommates. For decades, it was a cafeteria fixture in the Rust Belt.

Its origin story has taken on some mystique among food history nerds in Ohio. The standard version: Joseph Marzetti opened a restaurant in Columbus in 1896, near the Ohio State University. His wife, Teresa, created the hearty casserole as a cheap way to quell students’ appetites. According to legend, she named it for her brother-in-law, Johnny.

The name is part of the appeal. You feel like a friend is coming over when you say, “We’re having Johnny Marzetti!” It’s likely, though, that we don’t know the casserole’s namesake. No one has been able to find the dish on a vintage menu from Marzetti’s. The family—which has gone on to success with the T. Marzetti Company, launched in 1950 to sell Teresa’s salad dressings—has never claimed it, though they’ve had many opportunities to corroborate accounts from sources like Ohio History Central and, ahem, yours truly, in my 2018 book Tasting Ohio: Favorite Recipes of the Buckeye State.

The legend has a tidiness that you want to believe. Periodically, a determined writer will do a deep dive trying to reach the more complicated truth, each time getting closer to an answer. In 2018, Eric Lyttle did an excellent job for Columbus Monthly. We do know that the casserole goes way back. The Columbus Dispatch printed a recipe for Marzetti—one that’s notably more kicked-up than its descendants, calling for chili powder and cayenne pepper—in 1916.

Who’s the Real Johnny Marzetti? - Quote

The name is part of the appeal. You feel like a friend is coming over when you say, “We’re having Johnny Marzetti!”

In the years since, the casserole has congealed into a form that generally involves ground beef and macaroni. Some versions use egg noodles, but tubular pasta holds the sauce better, and I like the way the ground beef nestles into the macaroni elbows. The most common cheese is cheddar. Was mozzarella a rarity early in the casserole’s history, or could that have been an aesthetic preference? Either way, it’s novel and charming to see orange cheddar melted over a pasta bake that’s vaguely Italian. I see it as a very Midwestern move—taking a risk by playing it as safe as possible.

Lest you suspect that Johnny Marzetti is a relic, I refer you to Pinterest, where Marzetti casserole pins abound. If you’re new to the tradition, I recommend starting with my recipe, though it is a bit cheffy compared to others. To combat blandness, I use browned mushrooms for depth, oregano for zing, and crushed red pepper for subversion. Plus, plenty of garlic. You may divert from the straight and narrow in any other way you wish. Use white cheddar instead of orange. Add a gob of harissa paste to the sauce. Constant evolution is what makes Johnny Marzetti a folk legend in Ohio.

21st Century Johnny Marzetti

21st Century Johnny Marzetti

Serves 8


3 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cored, finely diced
12 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 ½ pounds lean ground beef (90:10 is good)
28 oz. can whole plum tomatoes in juice, crushed
3 tbsp. tomato paste
¾ tsp. dried oregano
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
12 oz. (2 ¾ cups) uncooked elbow macaroni
8 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, grated (2 generous cups)
4 oz. parmesan cheese, grated (1 ½ cups)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Set aside.

Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook onions until translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and bell pepper and cook 1 minute. Season generously with salt, scrape into a large bowl, and set aside.

Return skillet to heat and add the remaining 2 tbsp. oil. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and scrape into the bowl with the onions, garlic, and peppers.

Once again, return the skillet to the burner. Add the beef, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, breaking the beef into small clumps with a spoon. Stop when the meat is no longer pink, about 8 minutes. Spoon off most of the fat and liquid, if any has accumulated, and discard it.

Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, and pepper flakes and simmer until saucy, about 20 minutes. Add the reserved onion-mushroom mixture. Simmer 2 more minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente. Drain. Return the pasta to the pot. Add the cooked sauce and toss. Mix in half of the cheese, then dump into the greased dish. Scatter remaining grated cheese on top. Bake until the sauce bubbles and the cheese is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.

This recipe is adapted from Tasting Ohio: Favorite Recipes from the Buckeye State (Farcountry Press, 2018) and reprinted with the publisher’s permission.


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