No other Cincinnati dish defines my coming of age story more than the Zinover. Zino’s Firehouse in the 1872-built Ladder Company 19 in Corryville was where I went with friends in high school to eat before school homecoming dances. It was where we went after going to Scentiments Rock City on Short Vine to listen to the latest alternative music record or buy a Smith’s T Shirt, or after a long sweaty night at a 97X radio sponsored dance party at Bogarts. My first apartment was in one of the run-down old houses on Glendora around the corner from Zino’s. My second apartment on Jefferson was only a few more blocks away. And that deep-fried ooey-goeey pepperoni pizza concoction held center stage to all of it.
The Zinover is simple, and was probably the most simple dish on Zino’s international menu. It’s basically a deep fried calzone filled with mozzarella, provolone, marinara sauce and pepperoni. Many called it the Italian eggroll because it was deep fried and tubular rather than crescent shaped and baked like the calzone. It was dippable, sharable, and inexpensive – three things that fit well into my small high school and college aged wallet. And it was a delicious treat– dusted in herbed parmesan – a constant delight to my adventures on Short Vine, Clifton and Corryville.
In a July 2014 podcast on American Dreamers, John Humphrey III, son of the owners of Zino’s Firehouse, revealed the origin story of the Zinover. He said, “Mom and Dad went to Italy for their honeymoon in 1966. Wherever they were in Italy, they had a breakfast item of deep fried dough with a light, sweet cheese as a pastry and Mom (Joan MacVicar Humphrey) said, ‘Why don’t we do this in Cincy. We can put marinara, mozz, provolone, in a dough with pepperoni.’” They experimented with it in 66 or 67 when they returned and it became a standard popular item. The Zinover became so popular they made mini ones to serve at the Taste of Cincinnati in the 80s and 90s, and it was reincarnated three times since Zino’s closing.
That sweet cheese filled pastry that Joan Humphrey had in Italy was the cassatelle or casateddi, a Sicilian sweet dough enriched with white wine or Marsala, filled with a slightly sweetened local sheep’s milk ricotta , sometimes flavored with lemon , sometimes with chocolate drops. You might think of it as the Sicilian cannoli or the sweet version of ravioli pasta. It’s deep fried golden brown and sprinkled with powdered sugar and served warm. Cassatelle originated in the Sicilian province of Trapani, where they are still prepared for the Carnivale season and during the months leading up to Easter when the local sheep’s milk ricotta is at its best. Apart from the classic, different varieties appear across Sicily, including cassatelle Agira, filled with cocoa and almond filling (kind of like a Nutella), and others filled with pumpkins, figs, or chickpeas.
Zino’s story didn’t start with John and Joan Humphrey. The origin story of Zino’s is pretty cool. It starts in Norwood, Ohio, in 1952, two years before the Big Two Pizza Companies – Pasquale’s and LaRosa’s started stretching dough. It was on the corner of Montgomery and Hopkins where two former GE engineers , Albert Cuzzone and Vinnie Marino sold their pizzas. They had come from Massacheusetts, both of third generation Sicilian immigrant families – the area of origin of the Grandmother of the Zinover – the cassatelle. They were familiar with the commercial pizzerias of the East Coast – the successful ones Buddy LaRosa saw upon return from his tour of duty in World War II that motivated him to start Papa Gino’s, which later became the 347-1111 guys.
This new Italian pizza pie was so new that commercial ingredients were hard to come by in Cincinnati. Owners of Capri Pizza and Buddy LaRosa used to buy provolone cheese from Zino’s because they bought it in long tubes from an Italian wholesaler. Cuzzone was partial to anchovies on his pizzas. And they used spicy Circle U Pepperoni from the Black Angus meat market in Swifton Commons. Cincinnati Enquirer food writer Cliff Radel in 1974 noted it was the spiciest pepperoni used among the top 7 Cincinnati pizza makers he reviewed.
Another Zino’s pizza was opened on Ludlow avenue in Clifton a few doors up from Adrian Durban Florists, next to Connor’s Drug Store. They closed its doors in 1961. Cuzzone and Marino then sold to Al and Josie Richards, but Al Cuzzone bought it back with the help of John Humphrey Sr., and his father, who was chairman of the board of Phillip Cary Company. Al Cuzzone and John Humphrey Sr. had met each other while working for Kroger.
They weren’t fans of a delivery service, but used Cushman Scooters with pizza ovens in the back which they called Zino’s Pony Express. They were always having issues with accidents in the scooters, so they turned to modified Ford Mustangs from a young John Nolan Ford. John Humprhey Sr., the later owner, operated one of the Zino’s Pony Express routes serving employees of the stockyards along Spring Grove Avenue.
Cuzzone and Humphrey bought a restaurant in an old house on Edwards Avenue for their first restaurant concept. It was in the space that would later become Beluga restaurant, the restaurant that would define my early post college years on the East Side. Cuzzone sold out in about 1969 in disagreement with John over their menu. Cuzzone wanted to keep their traditional Italian menu items like mostaccioli, homemade meatballs and spaghetti and pizza, but Humphrey wanted to go more European with their menu items.
And Humphrey did turn Zino’s into an international restaurant. In 1969 Humphreys bought the old Corryville firehouse and turned it into the second restaurant in 1970, preserving one of the oldest Cincinnati firehouses. He hired Baker George Endrees and they made their own bread and pastries, supplying many Cincy restaurants including La Normandie and the Maisonette. He hired soup Chef Bob Cunningham and assistant Lou Smith, who made a long list of homemade soups like Jim Cranks Bell County bean with ham hocks, chili bean minestrone, zucchini bisque Hermann, curried eggplant, braised oxtail, mock turtle, Philadelphia pepper pot, Cuban black bean, cheddar cheese with beer, cream of cabbage, and cream of mushroom. Their most popular soups were their French Onion and Hungarian Chicken soup. Zino’s also became known for their comfy Hot Brown and their seven layer salad. In 1982 the Humphreys opened a third Café Zino in Kenwood Plaza, when Kenwood Mall was just a strip mall with no food.
Sadly, Zino’s closed in 1995, the year I graduated with my own engineering degree, like its Sicilian founders. The Zinover is so beloved that it has been reborn three more times. A recent attempt at filling the old Corryville space as Ladder Company 19 brought back the Zinover for a bit. Then in 2003, two female friends who had craved the Zinover during their pregnancy opened a Zino’s for a bit in Covington. Then in 2015, John and Joan Humphrey’s son, John III, started a Go Fund Me attempt to bring the Zinover back via a food truck that never really materialized. I’d still like to see the Zinover come back to life, but the memories surrounding it of my late teens and early twenties make it one of my most beloved Cincinnati foods.