There was absolutely no evidence that he’d been a great chef or even attended culinary school, yet Johnny has the distinction of the lead position in the old/new “Joy of Cooking’s” Brunch, Lunch, and Supper Dishes chapter – Johnny Marzetti Spaghetti Pie. Hardly gourmet fare, but certainly worthy of a Sunday Supper.
But, who was Johnny Marzetti?
I didn’t have much to go on – a name, a recipe and a town in the midwest. The author’s note in “Joy” says this pasta casserole was made famous at Marzetti’s restaurant in Columbus, Ohio.
I put my Internet browser on overdrive and managed to track down a few leads. The trail takes me to a clipping in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which confirms that the casserole was create in the 1920’s by the owner of Marzetti’s and named for his brother Johnny.
There are other connections. Marzetti’s, located in downtown Columbus, was a hang-out for writer James Thurber and his newspaper cronies. It’s not clear when it was demolished, but by 1981, a reference in the New York Times indicates that Marzetti’s had given way to a fast-food store. I even surface a sepia postcard of Marzetti’s dining room, available for $5.00 on EBay. It looked like a respectable establishment with crisp white table cloths and comfortable chairs.
I push further. The name evokes fond memories from hungry baby boomers, mostly in middle-America, where folks recall eating “Marzetti” at lunch in the school cafeteria. Others deem it “quasi-Italian” but nobody really seems to mind. There are multiple versions of the recipe, including one made with turkey which was clearly designed to use up Thanksgiving leftovers. The Bob Evans restaurant appears to have offered Johnny Marzetti on the menu in the not-to-distant past, and I uncovered a gourmet shop that promotes their version of Marzetti as perfect for a tailgate picnic. There’s even a passing reference in “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.” Beyond that, the man remains a bit of a question mark.
Now, it’s time to taste for myself – what is the culinary legacy of one Mr. Johnny Marzetti? I turn to page 95 of “Joy of Cooking” to begin the voyage. For added authenticity, I pull out my suburban Sunbeam Electric Frying Pan, circa 1979. It was standard issue for those of us who grew up in the “Casserole Corridor.”
The ingredients are simple. Ground beef, green pepper, spaghetti, cheddar cheese, and diced tomatoes. I toss in the “chef’s choice” suggestions offered by the original “Joy-rider" Irma S. Rombauer – sliced mushrooms and olives – but I throw in a few culinary twists of my own to add dimension – thick, tubular Perciatelli instead of spaghetti for added bite, Italian-style Panko breadcrumbs for a heartier crunch and black Kalamata olives for a briny snap.
As the ingredients hit the frying pan, I am transported back to the kitchen of my youth – the astringent freshness of the green pepper, the sharpness of the raw onion and the sizzle of the beef tickles my nose. It reminds me of the many spaghetti and meat dishes we used to dine on growing up in the 60s – but ours were usually clipped from Family Circle, and had names like Noodle Lasagna, Spaghetti Bravisimo or Spaghetti Amore. Great “handles,” no doubt, but lacking the obvious cachet of being named after the sibling of a colorful restaurateur from Ohio. While the truth about Johnny and his casserole-crazed brother may be lost to the annals of time, Johnny is just one of a long line of auspicious “celebrities” immortalized in the kitchen. Even the ubiquitous béchamel sauce was named for Louis de Bechamel, the Marquis de Nointel (1630-1703).
The meat sauce simmers, and I combine the cooked pasta with the cheddar cheese and bake for 30 minutes before removing from the oven. My first impression is that it’s a heck of a lot of food. No wonder the Ohio Public School System dubbed it the cafeteria dish of choice. Impression Number Two – it’s a lot of carbs. I’m going to have to do extra time on the stationary bicycle tomorrow morning. Impression Number Three – I should have invited a dozen people over to join me for dinner.
I pour a glass of Chianti because I think Johnny would have wanted it that way and take a taste. The meat sauce is rich and savory with the taste of garlic and simmered tomatoes. The cheddar cheese and bread crumbs give the pasta a crispy and nutty crust. It’s certainly not haute cuisine, but it’s pretty darn tasty. So much so, that I have three helpings.
Who was Johnny Marzetti? We may never know his complete back story, but I do know this. He liked food that sticks to your ribs and probably enjoyed cooking for a crowd. And, if Johnny’s up there in heaven enjoying a little grappa right now, he knows I ate well tonight.
© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved