Thursday, October 31, 2013

Review: Rubino's Pizza, Columbus (Bexley) OH

I've had plenty of soft puffy Neapolitan pizza, crisp and rigid Trenton and New Haven pie, crunchy yet pliable New York Slices, thin Granma pies, thick Sicilian pie, flaccid Chicago deep-dish "pizza," thin round pizzas in Venice and Tuscany, and spectacular rectangle slices in Rome. But I've never experienced any American "Midwestern" pizza, despite having read some high praise of St. Louis and Detroit style pies. 
Click on any pic for full-size resolution

A road trip to Columbus, Ohio (now a bigger city than Cleveland or Cincinnati, I learned) gave me the opportunity to have my very first heart-of-America pizza. Research pointed to several promising new eateries offering up artisanal (mostly Neapolitan) pies, such as Harvest, Sarafino's, Natalie's, Yellow Brick, and Bono. However, once I read THIS review on Slice - Serious Eats, I knew that Rubino's in Bexley would be my top choice.

Growing up on the east coast in the 1960s and 1970s, I never saw a pizza place that wasn't independently owned and operated. Pies were different store to store, but each pizzaiolo made his own dough, chose his own toppings, and offered a unique product in a humble setting.

Pizza making began a decades-long descent into mass-sourced hell, though, in the latter part of the seventies. Several factors were involved - pizza eaters expected pizza to be a cheap meal, but the Italian immigrants (and then their children) crafting those unique pies began to find opportunities to earn more in other pursuits.

In places without a strong Italian presence, the big chains began to sell mass-sourced pizzas that were reasonably tasty, cheap, and filling. Eventually, the chains entered into the traditional east coast pizza markets. In the 1980s, I laughed when I saw a Pizza Hut in Trenton NJ, then cried when it succeeded. Pizza had become a commodity, not a craft product.

The big chains brought a lot of price pressure to the mom-n-pop operators; too many of them turned to mass-sourced suppliers like Sysco, and began churning out fat floppy soft pies of little distinction. If you ever wondered why so many of the storefront pizza joints offer pies distinguished only by creative toppings, it's because they are buying the same low-grade dough, sauce, and cheese from the same mass supplier.

Over the last five-plus years, there has been an overdue movement returning pizza-making to an art form. Most of the new pie is Neapolitan or Neapolitan-inspired (notable exception - the old-school pizza at the newly-opened Gennaro's Tomato Pies in South Philly, reviewed HERE). Still, my grandest pizza experiences were in the long-standing (50 years or more) pizza places where the recipe, the ambiance, and the customer expectations have withstood the onslaught of cheap, mass-sourced pies.

My dining partners were long-time Columbus-area residents, but neither had heard of Rubino's. They were initially skeptical, but heartened by some warm reviews on Urbanspoon and Yelp.

We arrived on a Wednesday night around 7:30. Rubino's, which opened in 1954, has a wonderful neon sign in front of its square brick building. Inside, it was a perfect time warp. There was a strong smoky aroma of charred pizza dough, and the tables, booths, and decor looked to be unchanged for decades.
Dough entering the presser

Stacks of the flattened ovals

The staff were exceptionally friendly, allowing me to take plenty of pics while explaining the pie options. We were warned that the pies have "only a little cheese." (And, it's provolone.) We ordered one sausage pie and one pepperoni pie, which seemed like a lot for three people - but not a problem because my dining partners could take home the leftovers.

An online reviewer advised that one should order the pie "Shenked" which seemed to mean well-done. We mentioned that when ordering, but waitress simply said "Oh, you want it well-done."

Beverage choices included soda and water. The water was served in a curious Rubbermaid container with small Styrofoam cups; my A&W cream soda came in a can with a straw. This was charming and amusing, and - spoiler alert - the only thing about this experience that could be improved. A big paper cup of ice would have been very welcome.
These ovens have a vintage look

While we waited for the pies, we noted a brisk takeout business. I waked over near the counter and saw the staff putting small rounds of dough through a pressing/flattening machine, where they came out as slightly wider ovals. I've never seen any pizza prepared in that fashion.
The sausage pie

Rubino's is famous for the thinness of its crust, and soon we knew why. The "large" pies were modest in diameter - about 14" - and thinner than any I've ever eaten. Thinner than the legendary thin-crust pies at Tacconelli's in Philly (reviewed HERE).  So thin, in fact, it probably would suffer and flop in the traditional triangle cut. Each pie was sliced into the "party cut" that yielded little rectangles about 3" by 3" in dimension.
Pepperoni pizza, party cut

Sausage is my go-to pie topping, especially the big uneven chunks of genuine Italian rope sausage used at places like Trenton's DeLorenzo's (reviewed HERE). Sliced, ground, or pellet-style sausage doesn't generally deliver the same payload. Here, however, the sausage was applied in big thin patches. I've never seen anything like it, but the house-made sausage was delightful.

The crust was thin and superbly crunchy, as expected. It had a wonderful char on one pie and a perfect - slightly darker - char on the other. And it had its own excellent flavor to accompany its crispy texture.  

The sauce was thick, but not chunky. It was seasoned wonderfully and on the (perfectly for me) salty side. The key here, especially with this wafer-thin crust, is balance so that the weight and moisture of the sauce, cheese, and meat do not swamp the crust. And it was ideal - each bite offered up that wonderful snap of crust, the tangy sauce, the browned cheese serving to affix the sausage or pepperoni toppings.

The pepperoni pie was, for me, the star. It was covered in delightful cups of narrow-gauge thick-cut slices - a lot of meat for such a thin pie but not an overload. We had planned on leftovers, but we easily finished both pies and the complimentary bowl of three firm and savory house-made meatballs swimming in that same delicious sauce.

Rubino's offers pizza, salads, spaghetti, and little else. The meatballs were so good that I would try the pasta on a return visit, but the pizza is surely the star.

While it is nearly pointless to compare this pizza to others, it's tempting to classify it as "bar pie" even though there is no liquor served here. I'd love to eat this pizza side-by-side with the stellar bar pie from Lee's Tavern in Staten Island (reviewed HERE).

What Rubino's pizza shares with the best pies is the craft and dedication of the pizzaioli, the quality of the home-made ingredients, the balance in the ratio of toppings to crust, and the skill and attention to baking. This is landmark, absolute destination pizza.

Our two pies and one soda came to $23.11 with tax, before tip. World-class hand-crafted pizza at chain-store prices.

Crust is a 9.9. Sauce is a 9.5. Cheese is 9.5. Sausage and pepperoni, 10. Ambiance and service, 10. Overall, 9.9 and one of the best pizza experiences you can find. 

Rubino's Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


  1. I had a very similar experience dragging some of my local friends there when visiting Columbus from Cincinnati last year (I'm required to point out that Columbus is bigger because the "city" includes much of the suburbs, but Cincinnati has a much bigger downtown and metro area). Central Ohio has several pizzerias that serve this cracker-think Ohio style pizza. Donato's, Casano's, & Milano's are the chains... and they're all worth skipping. Rubino's was the best of this style that I've tried. I agree with your review, it's a cool old place. The closest comparison for me was Vito & Nick's in Chicago.

  2. This pizza looks very good. This is akin to what I am trying to develop on my own at home (I use a rolling pin instead of a dough sheeter). I think you're on track calling it a "bar pie." It's within that vein. The thin-crusted, often sheeted pies made in "since-195X) places. I've always seen bar pies and tavern pizzas and Chicago/Midwest thin-crust pizzas as being, if not exactly the same, at least cousins. They all seem to be born out of that mid-20th-century American pizza mindset that did not necessarily worry about crust as a thing in and of itself (hole structure, oven spring, etc). Not that that's a bad thing, in my book, it's just a different style.

  3. Joe, Thanks for the local view and extra advice. I'm traveling soon to Bloomington, via Midway. Is Vito & Nick's my best choice near Midway? Not going to make it to the downtown Chicago area. Thanks!

  4. Adam, I strive for the hole structure using the Baking Steel at home - but now perhaps I will try this bar pie style. It may be simple, but I prefer it to the more artisanal Neapolitan pie. Can't resist the crispness. - Marty

  5. Murph's (on Livingston) bar pizza is better.

  6. I agree! It is a family owned pizzeria to this day. I grew up eating their pizza, so did my parents, and now so is my own daughter. This is a place like no other in our neck of the woods, and we are so proud it remains part of our community! Thanks for writing such a wonderful piece on one of our city's best hidden gems.