Unless you’ve grown up in Columbus, Ohio, you’ve probably never heard of Johnny Marzetti. This isn’t a person, by the way. It’s a casserole.
The easy-to-love meal is the stuff childhood dreams are made of: macaroni, ground beef, red sauce and cheese, baked together and dished out in thick slices like a lasagna. “My first sign that someone is not from Columbus,” says Jennifer Williams, owner of Weiland’s Market, “is [that] they go, ‘What’s Johnny Marzetti?’”
The most common origin story of the Johnny Marzetti comes from the long-gone Marzetti family of restaurants. Teresa Marzetti’s family immigrated from Italy in the 1890s and established a series of Italian eateries close to The Ohio State University, where they fed hungry college students on a budget, and later opened a location on Broad Street in downtown Columbus, across from the Ohio Statehouse. Supposedly, the Johnny Marzetti was their invention, as a baked casserole named for Teresa’s brother-in-law.
However, Eric Lyttle, then-editor of Columbus Monthly magazine, cast doubt on the popular story in his 2018 piece “The Disappearance of Johnny Marzetti.” He found that a businessman and real estate owner by the name of John Marzetti—not related to Teresa—owned restaurants in the area in the 1870s, making him another good candidate as the dish’s namesake. But Lyttle couldn’t find reference to the dish on the menus of any Marzetti restaurant. Yet it seems to have gained mainstay status by the 1950s, when it’s referenced as a local favorite in the Columbus Dispatch.
Long-time Columbus residents have fond memories of eating it for school lunches or at favorite neighborhood diners. Weiland’s Market, open since 1961, sells pre-made, one-pound trays of Johnny Marzetti. Owner Jennifer Williams estimates that Weiland’s sells about 3,400 trays annually.
The dish is beloved because of its simplicity and consistency. “We’ve been making the same recipe for years and years,” Williams says. “People buy that and mac and cheese because kids will eat it and parents will eat it. You don’t mess with the recipe. We’ve had people in the past say, ‘What if we…?’ No, don’t touch the Johnny Marzetti recipe. It’s inviolable.”
You’ll find Johnny Marzetti as a Monday lunch special at Tommy’s Diner in the Franklinton neighborhood. It’s been on the menu since Tommy and Kathy Pappas opened the diner in 1989. Their son Michael says an uncle who helped shape the menu when the diner opened suggested serving Johnny Marzetti, which the diner has ever since. Michael Pappas says they’ll sell about 30 servings every Monday.
“We put in peppers, onions, ground beef,” he says. “We used to put cheese in it and bake it, but long-time City Auditor Hugh J. Dorrian [who was a regular] couldn’t eat cheese. We took it out so he could eat it and we never put it back.”
Even if there’s nothing exotic about the dish, it has a local history that’s worth remembering. “It’s our responsibility to preserve food traditions,” Williams say. “I don’t think we should ever be too advanced culinarily to not eat Johnny Marzetti.”