It’s Hip to Be Square…. In Dayton, Ohio

Marions-Piazza-in-Mason-OH_Sausage-and-Pepperoni-Pizza

A recent Facebook friend’s post offered the opinion, “Why do some Ohio pizza makers cut their pizzas in squares.   It’s just wrong!”   This particular friend happens to be a native of Philadelphia, who was familiar with the thicker-crust, pie-shaped pizza slices of his youth. What he didn’t know is that the square cut-pizza, called the ‘hors d’oeuvres cut’ is a Dayton pizza thing that harkens back to 1953 and the Cassano Pizza family of Kettering, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton.

Now things have always happened a bit differently in Dayton. The Gem City, as it’s known, has a history of unbridled creativity and innovation.     Before Silicon Valley, there was the Miami Valley, which at the turn of the 19th century had more patents per capita than any other city in the U.S. Think of the Wright brothers, the cash register, and the electric starter for the automobile, among hundreds of other innovations from which the world at large benefitted.

One of these innovative ideas that arrived in Dayton from Italy – via New York City – was modified just a tad and became a regional culinary phenomenon: the square-cut pizza.   This phenom has since infiltrated Dayton’s neighbors to the northeast, Columbus; and southwest, Cincinnati, through the Donato’s pizza chain, founded in 1964 by Jim Grote, who took this idea and went wild.   Despite every reaction of fast food chains to conform to prevailing trends – Daytonians have clung to this unique interpretation of pizza, making it a recognizable local style.

The square-cut pizza of Dayton can be characterized by a few features: cracker thin – typically salty crust that’s sometimes dusted with cornmeal, very light sauce, and whopping, edge-to-edge toppings.   Most importantly, of course is that the pizza is cut into small, easy-to-eat squares.   If you look at a Dayton style pepperoni pizza, for example, you really can’t tell where the pepperoni ends and the crust begins. And, one Dayton-style chain, Marion’s has a distinctive sausage with fennel seed that they crumble onto the pizza.  Some call Marion’s an acquired taste. I call it pizza heaven.

So, unlike Pizza Hut and other national chains who have a big edge to their crust, that you can stuff with cheese and other items, Dayton-style  pizza is one flat, crispy sheet.

During the post War years in Dayton, Ohio, the Cassano family introduced their pizza to the area, serving it out of the back of their Donisi family grocery in Kettering. Vic Cassano, Sr. and his mother-in-law Caroline Donisi,at first had a rough time with customers to which pizza in the 1950s was still an exotic treat. Even though pizza came to New York City from the Naples region of Italy in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until after the war that it was brought to the Midwest, mostly by enterprising veterans who had seen it during their tours of duty coming through New York and Philadelphia.

When Vic Cassano did a bit of market research, he was told by women the one thing they didn’t like about pizza was that it was difficult to eat without looking foolish, or messing it all over you.  Think of the gloved ladies of the 1950’s with pillbox hats and tea dresses going out for pizza. So he devised the idea of cutting it into squares and it has been done that way ever since.

Another reason for the square-cut was given by Ron Holp, a one-time franchise operator of Cassano’s, who broke off in 1964 and founded Ron’s Pizza in Miamisburg, Ohio.   He said that early on, most Midwesterners didn’t know anything about pizza, so if you wanted to try it and tried a whole pie shaped slice and didn’t like it, you ruined that whole slice. If you tried a small square shaped piece, you could try a small bite before you dove in.     But who would NOT like a slice of pizza?   Scientific research has shown that people actually eat more when things are cut into smaller pieces – it’s kind of the psychology of “I can have ONE more small slice.”

Another reason for the square-cut slices given by Holp is the amount of toppings that they were putting on the pizzas.   If you picked up a pie shaped slice with the numerous toppings, they’d fall all over the place.   That seems to feed into the gloved ladies-who-lunch theory that Vic Cassano gives.

Another former Cassano’s franchisee, Marion Glass, took his lessons from Vic and opened his own operation, Marion’s Pizza, on Patterson Road in 1965.   He was the first pizza place to offer dining room seating, and his chains quickly became the most popular in Dayton.   Like in Cincinnati, Ohio, to the south, it’s first pizza to market, Pasquale’s, was quickly usurped in success and popularity by later comer, LaRosa’s.

The dining room experience spawned a unique opportunity for Glass. He hosted weekly cast parties for the Kenley Players who performed at Dayton’s Memorial Hall.   The Kenley stars frequently commented on the unique square-cut pizzas.  Phyllis McGuire, lead singer of the famed McGuire sisters, loved Marion’s pizza and the small square cut, she thought they would be perfect to serve as hors d’oeuvres at a party.  So, she ordered 36 large half-baked frozen pizzas and had them shipped to her home in Las Vegas and served Marion’s pizza at her party. Thus the nickname “hors d’oeuvre cut’ was born.

The Kenley players’ star power attracted other big names of the era to Marion’s: Joe Namath, Mickey Rooney, Barry Williams of the Brady Bunch, Tony Randall, and even one of my favorite comedians, Betty White.   Hundreds of celebrity photos can be seen at any Marion’s location as evidence of this star-studded history.

While the three pioneers were Cassano’s, Ron’s and Marion’s, Daytonians supported a number of other square cut pizza shops around the area – Giovanni’s Pizzeria in Fairborn (1953), Joe’s Pizzeria in Riverside (1959), Little York Tavern in Vandalia (1981), El Greco in North Dayton, Milano’s (1969), Hoagie’s Pizza in North Dayton (1969), Oregon Express (1976), amongst others who have come and gone.

While other styles of pizza have made their way into the Gem City, the square-cut pizza’s popularity has endured and thrived for more than 60 years as a testament to the unique Dayton innovation.

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