Any pizza historian worth their weight will have a hearty percentage of Don Quixote in their soul. For example, my latest quest came to me in an early morning email from Dave L.
“I think a dive into the Dover/Phila style pizza is very much needed. The Press Grill in the Short North (and Grandview) has been offering this style for over a decade now. The recipe was brought from Grandma Zifer’s pizza in Dover and New Philadelphia, OH.”
Mission accepted! We had a good online exchange. Dave quickly established his credibility and presented me with a lot of helpful information to start me on what became the twisty path to Dover/New Philadelphia style pizza. He gave me the two essentials I needed to know of Dover/New Philadelphia style pizza: “Colby cheese on top of a pre-baked crust (so a little thick, but light and airy), before putting the sauce and other toppings on.”
Thank you, Dave. Or maybe curse you, Dave. Read on.
If I was going to judge and evaluate and consume this previously unknown pizza style, I needed to have a template of what it was. When I was trained to be a certified BBQ judge, I learned that to judge something fairly you need an established set of guidelines for the style. Comparing Columbus style to Dover/New Philadelphia style pizza could be like comparing apples to oranges. I needed a starting point to embark on my quest, so I need to know what guided this style.
I began my research by contacting the Tuscarawas County Public Library in New Philadelphia. They did not have anything on file but offered to continue looking and get back to me if anything was discovered. Gina, the helpful librarian suggested I also check with the Tuscarawas County Historical Society located at the branch library in Kent. This group responded to me quickly. They did not have a file on Grandma Zifer’s Pizza, Mary Zifer’s Pizza or Penzo’s Pizza, but I was welcome to search their onsite newspaper archives.
I then opted to get personal by contacting the Facebook pages for Mary Zifer’s Pizza and Penzo’s. No response. With the gauntlet clearly thrown down, I pressed on by diving into obituaries of deceased Dover-area pizza shop owners Dave L. sent. This is what I learned.
Grandma Zifer was born in Italy in 1898, she died in 2002. She and her husband opened a grocery store in 1923 that eventually became a pizza shop. Using the power of Google, I confirmed that Mary Zifer enclosed her front porch in 1953 to start her first pizzeria. Putting your tax dollars to work I found out via the Ohio Secretary of State website that there have been a few locations of Mary’s Zifer’s pizza over the years run by various relatives. Finally, after all hope was lost, I did a hard drive into the Pizza Connoisseurs of Columbus Facebook page to confirm that a few people who had consumed pizza at Mary Zifer’s were concerned about the presence of colby cheese in lieu or mozzarella, or heaven forbid, provolone! Penzo’s Pizza is different from Zifer’s interpretation, lacking the thicker crust and locally-sourced cheese. Penzo’s has been around since 1936, making it one of the oldest pizzerias in Ohio.
Since I was getting nowhere fast in my research, I started to think there was a dark secret involved. This is where some Quixote-themed psychosis started to trickle in….. Zifer – must be a German name. That must be why the crust is different. Ohio-made colby cheese on pizza?!! Clearly the work of the Holmes County Amish Cheese Syndicate (Mafia)! Oddly, my hunches were dispelled by the most unlikely of sources.
Somehow, in the spirit of “Florida man,” the best bit of information I found came from a Florida newspaper article about a Zifer who brought his family recipes from Dover to serve the sunshine state in the 1990s. This relative shared that the family’s Italian surname was shortened from Ziffero on their immigration to the U.S.
At this point, any rational person would have given up, but I had only just begun because Dave L. had more information to share.
“I am guessing maybe early 1990s, Nick Hutras and one of his brothers bought the recipe from Grandma Zifer and opened the Pizza Pi Company. It was located in the Short North in O’Brien’s Deli (Maureen O’Brien) on W. Russell St. It was fantastic but only lasted a short while. The Hutras brother, maybe three of them, from Dover, owned Aristotle’s restaurant on Nationwide Blvd at some point in the late ’80s/early ’90s. At some point, Nick struck up a deal with the owner of the Press Grill in the Short North and to this day provides them with the ingredients to make the pizzas for them. The sauce and crust are the keys, and the cheese on the bottom. It is called the Dover/Phila pizza on the menu and they serve it at the original Short North location as well as a newer Grandview location.”
Dave tracked down Nick’s number. I called Nick. I never heard back from Nick. I tagged Press Tavern on Instagram about my quest, not even a like. With no foundation of knowledge and minimal chance of success I soldiered on. At this point, there was only one thing I could do, eat pizza and press on. Press Pub On 5th is the nearest of the two locations serving this take on pizza, so I checked out the website and there it was for the world to see on the menu: (dover-new phila style) nick’s red sauce + ohio-made holmes county colby + extra pepperoni.
I ordered a Dover/New Philadelphia style pizza, a Sausage + Peppers pizza (more about this later) and a bunch of other food because I’ve never been to Press Pub on 5th and wanted some comparison points for their menu at large.
I’ll cut to the chase with this short review: The Mac and Cheese and Cottage Fries are great! However, since you are now hundreds of words into this article, let’s talk about the pizza.
From a technical standpoint, the pizza is well-executed with higher-end ingredients. It clearly features colby cheese. The cheese has no off taste and blends well with the other ingredients for this specialty pizza. The crust is thick, up to 1 inch in some areas, dense with sponge-like elements of French bread pizza in texture, flavor and taste. It is very crunchy with more of a toast-style texture than a typical pizza crust chewiness. It was at the crust edge, that area at the outermost ring of the circle, unprotected from the heat of the oven by sauce, cheese or toppings, where I really struggled in my feelings about this pizza.
The crust edge has the texture of a very hard crouton. At an emotional, psychic, texture and epicurean level, it was not wrong per se, but it was definitely not right. I did not like the crust edge, but I did not hate it. Mostly, I was confused. I thought that perhaps this was a fluke. I tried the Sausage + Peppers pizza and had the same crusty experience. I asked my wife for her thoughts. She liked the pizza toppings. She did not like the crust. She was a hard pass on the crust edge. My wife is Italian. My son ate all of the macaroni and cheese, I heard it was great.
We were both enamored with the topping combination for the Sausage + Peppers pizza. There is no colby cheese with this offering. First, let me dispel what you are thinking. If you come from old Midwestern stock, when you hear the phrase “sausage and peppers,” you are likely to envision sliced sausage links and green, yellow or orange pepper strips, all sautéd to perfection. Such is not the case here. This was no problem for my wife and I because the Press on 5th spin on this combination pleasantly reminded us of the Screaming Tristano, our favorite speciality pizza at the defunct Tristano’s of Grove City. There is sausage on this pizza, but not what you expect. There is a slight scattering of small sausage crumbles, that are frequently almost too small to see, that remind me of the sausage on the school pizzas of my long-ago youth. There are also a lot of easy-to-see pepperoni and salami. These two cured meats are indeed sausages and the type I like to see on a pizza. The salami was frequently sliced too thin, so that it over charred and lost flavor, but its presence and meaty resistance were still appreciated.
As for the peppers, this pizza had banana peppers (a Columbus classic!) and Italian giardiniera. Giardiniera, while technically a relish, offers a high percentage of sliced “sport” peppers and some chards of carrot, cauliflower and some spicy heat. All of this combined is close to heavenly. The crust holds the weight of these toppings well and with the thickness of the crust, you do not need to worry about it getting soggy…ever. However, again, as we ate this pizza I experienced the same disorientation related to the crust. We had over one half of it remaining at the end of our feast so we left it in the box and placed it in the refrigerator. The next day my wife texted me from work to let me know she liked the pizza better because the crust had softened overnight and some of the ingredients had seeped into the dough making it more to her liking. I decided to try it myself and thought the same.
Because I was concerned that I may have missed something with the crust or a new person was working the oven when we ordered, I got another Sausage + Peppers pizza several weeks later but I had the exact same experience. My wife tried this a second time, too, with the same diagnosis. This time, I had all of the leftovers to myself the next day and it made for a good meal.
In the end, in the spirit of Don Quixote and with you the readers serving as Sancho Panzas, I had the experience I was fated to have. I tilted a pizza windmill. The jury is out for me on Dover/New Philadelphia style pizza. My gut tells me that I would like the crust more if it was straight “outta the oven.” I would also like it more while drinking my third beer sitting at the Press Pub (we ordered carry out both times).
I think that someday, Dave L. and I will meet in Dover, eat at Mary Zifer’s and Penzo’s and I will have my real education on Dover/New Philadelphia style pizza. Because I am a pizza historian, in some future trip to see my in-laws in Kent, instead of knocking back shots in the living room with the extended family, I’ll be sitting at a desk in the Tuscarawas County Historical Society searching for the origins of Grandma Zifer, Mary Zifer and how they came to the decision to make history with Holmes County colby cheese. As Don said, hunger is the best sauce in the world and I will go hungry on my next quest. Thanks, Dave.
For more information, visit pressgrill.net.
All photos by Jim Ellison