Dayton’s square cut pizza culture
“It was in the 1950s when I ate my first pizza in Dayton, Ohio, and that pizza was cut in small, square pieces. It was in the early 1960s when I ate a pizza out of the Dayton area that was not cut in squares, but was cut in pie-shaped slices. It was then I came to realize that pizzas across the nation were pretty much cut in pie-shaped slices, and that my city of Dayton, Ohio seemed to be the only place where pizzas were cut in squares. I have often referred the ‘thin crust, square-cut pizzas’ sold throughout the Dayton area as Dayton-style pizza, much like deep dish pizza is synonymous with the city of Chicago or how thin crust pizza sold by the slice is identified with New York City.”
-Roger Glass, President/CEO of Marion’s Piazza
Things tend to happen differently in Dayton. The historical record shows we are a community overflowing with unbridled creativity and innovation. While the world at large has reaped the benefits of countless inventions that were birthed in Dayton, one idea that arrived in Dayton from Europe – via New York City – was changed, remaining an idiosyncratic culinary phenomenon: the square-cut pizza.
A LEGEND IS BORN
Dayton’s square-cut pizza is characterized by the following features: thin – typically salty – crust, light sauce and generous, edge-to-edge toppings. Most importantly, despite the area’s variations on toppings and crust, the definitive feature is in the cut: rather than cutting pie-shaped slices, the pizza is cut into small, easy-to-eat squares.
While Dayton’s definition of what pizza means may not be in line with big national pizza chains like Pizza Hut and Domino’s, nor the iconic styles of New York, Chicago or even California, this anomalous pizza style stands as a beacon amongst a landscape of increasing homogenization in America. Despite every imposition to conform to prevailing trends – both old and new – Daytonians have clung to their own unique interpretation of pizza consumption, making square-cut pizza a distinctive local style.
While pizza was initially offered in Dayton in the early 1950s in adherence with prevailing traditions from back East, the indisputable innovator of the square cut would be Cassano’s Pizza King in 1953. During the post-war boom years in Dayton, Ohio, the Cassano family introduced their pizza to the area, serving the novelty item out of the back of their Donisi family grocery at 2210 S. Patterson Blvd. According to Chris Cassano, president of Cassano’s Pizza King and great-grandson of Caroline Donisi – who first began preparing pizzas along with Chris’s grandfather Vic Cassano, Sr. – the clientele of Dayton were somewhat reserved when it came to diving into this exotic – at least by 1950s Midwestern standards – treat that would, in time, come to be synonymous to the region.
“It started shortly after they opened and it was because of the ladies,” Chris explained. “When my grandfather was asking about pizzas he was told by women that the one thing they did not like about pizza was that it was difficult to eat without looking foolish or messing it all over you. So, my grandfather came up with cutting the pizzas in squares and we have been doing so ever since.”
However, there may be at least two additional explanations as to why square-cut pizza emerged in Dayton. “I asked Vic when I bought the franchise why we cut the pizza in squares rather than pie-shaped,” recalled Ron Holp, founder of Ron’s Pizza in Miamisburg and one-time franchise operator for Cassano’s. “He told me one reason was a lot of people didn’t know anything about pizza, which I didn’t either, and that if you would want to try it and it was in pie shape, they would ruin a whole big piece. But, if you had a small square and you didn’t like it, you wouldn’t ruin the whole thing. That was one reason. Another reason was the amount of toppings that they were putting on. If you cut it pie-shaped and picked it up, it would all fall on the table or the plate or whatever. That was the two reasons he gave me personally in 1960.”
As this new presentation for pizza in Dayton found an audience after first being offered June 4, 1953, by mid-August the family moved their operations into their own carry-out location at 3694 Salem Ave. As the square-cut pizza phenomenon spread throughout the Dayton area, other operations soon sprung up to compete and to get a piece of the pie, as it were.
While many have long since closed up shop, a handful remain in operation today. Among them, Joe’s Pizzeria on Airway Road at Third Street remains a local favorite. With Cassano’s increasing popularity throughout the 1950s, they began to open additional locations – two notable franchises being operated in Miamisburg by Ron Holp and on North Dixie Drive by Marion Glass. During his time working for Cassano’s, Holp learned much about operating a pizza outfit in Dayton. In fact, he learned so much that by 1964 he decided to open his own shop. Like any good pupil, however, he took the lessons from his master and sought to surpass Cassano’s, setting off what has come to be known in Dayton lore as “The Pizza Wars.”
“THE PIZZA WARS”
Like any successful capitalist enterprise, Cassano’s definitive grip on the Dayton pizza scene of the 1950s and early 1960s was bound to give rise to competitors. While Joe’s Pizzeria at Smithville and Airway Roads opened in the late 1950s, as did other now-defunct operations, it was the opening of one of Cassano’s protégé’s that spawned what came to be known as The Pizza Wars.
“I broke off in 1964 and opened Ron’s,” recalled Holp. “We opened up at [Twelfth Street and Central Avenue in Miamisburg] March the 17th, 1964. Of course, we tried to copy Vic’s product as close as we could. And we got it real close, because we ended up in a lawsuit. We were in court for three days. They had a warrant out for my arrest. [...] At that time franchises were really new, so Vic told him, ‘He’s violated the franchise. Go arrest him!’ We ended up in court for three days and the Dayton Daily News said, ‘Pizza Wars’ [as a headline]. [The print in the paper] was almost as big as V-J Day.”
Holp continued to operate both his new venture with Ron’s Pizza as well as his Cassano’s franchise in Miamisburg, in accordance with the court’s ruling, and established one of the regions’ premier pizzas cut into squares. Eventually, Ron’s would supply several other smaller operations as well as open a handful of franchises in the area. In 2002, they opened shop at their current location in downtown Miamisburg.
A SEAT AND A SQUARE
In much the same way that Ron Holp took his lessons from Cassano’s, another franchisee – Marion Glass – opened his own operation that would further alter and redefine square-cut pizza in Dayton. Marion’s Piazza opened its doors Wednesday, August 18, 1965, at 460 Patterson Road and was the first pizza house in the city of Dayton to offer dining room seating. Very quickly, Marion’s ascended to become, arguably, the most popular pizza house in Dayton.
“The fact that the restaurant could seat approximately 225 people was one reason [for Marion’s success], which meant that customers no longer had to carry their pizzas out,” explained Roger Glass, president/CEO of Marion’s Piazza. “They could now enjoy their pizzas hot out of the oven in a pleasant atmosphere with the beverage of their choice.”
As patrons of Marion’s enjoyed the distinctive new dining environment, a unique opportunity arose which further emboldened their reputation among patrons within the entertainment industry. “During the years of the Kenley Player’s Theater productions at Memorial Hall, when Marion’s Piazza hosted a weekly Kenley Cast Party at the Shroyer Road location, the Kenley stars and casts would frequently comment about the way the pizzas were cut. Most had never seen a pizza cut in squares before,” Glass recalled. “Phyllis McGuire, lead singer of the famed McGuire Sisters, loved Marion’s pizza and was so intrigued by the fact that they were cut into small squares, she thought they would be perfect to serve as hors d’oeuvres for a party she was giving. She ordered 36 large half-baked and frozen pizzas which were shipped to her Las Vegas residence, and she served Marion’s pizzas as hors d’oeuvres at her party.”
As the Kenly Players created a surge of star power at Marion’s, their appeal continued to attract other big names of the era: Joe Namath, Mickey Rooney, Barry Williams [of “The Brady Bunch”], Tony Randall, Betty White. Marion’s, in many ways, became the ambassador for Dayton square-cut pizza beyond the horizons of the Miami Valley. A visit to any Marion’s location will present the evidence of the spread of Marion’s gospel throughout the 1970s: hundreds of photos of celebrities posing with Marion Glass and his square-cut pizza.
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
While the empire may have been carved out by the likes of Cassano’s, Ron’s and Marion’s, Daytonians had certainly developed a sufficient appetite to support a number of other square-cut pizza operations throughout the region, such as Giovanni’s Pizzeria e Ristorante Italiano in Fairborn, Joe’s Pizzeria in Riverside, Little York Tavern in Vandalia, El Greco’s in North Dayton, Milano’s Atlantic City Submarines and others that have come and gone throughout the region.
“My father, Ralph Hoagland had a few pizza ‘ventures’ before opening this location on North Dixie Drive in 1969,” said Theresa “Micki” Collins of Hoagie’s Pizza. “We have been cutting our pizza in squares from day one. It was the popular way at that time and the only cut we were accustomed to.”
“If you grew up in the Dayton area you grew up with square-cut pizza, that’s what people expected, and that’s what they got,” said Joe Bavarro of Oregon Express. “There are some really great pizza stores in Dayton […] and Daytonians are very passionate about pizza pie.”
Although Dayton square-cut style largely remained a local phenomenon, the style did export to Columbus, Ohio with the opening of Donato’s Pizza by Jim Grote in 1964. In the early 1990s, Donato’s brought their interpretation of square-cut pizza back to Dayton, which, inevitably, found a receptive audience.
A DAYTON ORIGINAL
While square-cut pizza is certainly not the only game in town (Flying Pizza, Pizza Factory, Cousin Vinny’s, HaHa Pizza, New York Pizzeria and Uno’s Chicago Pizza all offer popular interpretations of New York, Chicago and California styles in Dayton), having endured and thrived for more than 60 years stands as a testament to this unique Dayton innovation. While countless other regional traditions and identifiers have fallen to the march of time, Daytonians’ love for square-cut pizza – generation after generation – shines as a rare example in an increasingly homogenized world of a local tradition thriving and helping to define the very character of the community.
“It’s easier to eat, that’s for sure,” Holp observed. “Pizza in the Dayton area is just a little bit different than basically the rest of the country.”
“I think it’s just a simple thing that it’s what you’re used to,” Glass said. “The first pizza you ever had was square cut and that’s just what it’s supposed to be.”
“We have been consistent for over 60 years with ingredient quality and our unique thin crispy crust with a salty bottom,” Cassano concluded. “Cassano’s Pizza King originated in this area the square cut pizza and its popularity has endured the test of time.”
Reach DCP Editor Kyle Melton at KyleMelton@DaytonCityPaper.com.