Respect isn’t the first word to come to mind when describing the once-ubiquitous dish known as Johnny Marzetti. But maybe it should. Although the number of Columbus establishments serving the dish has dwindled over the years, Johnny Marzetti once graced the tables of restaurants, cafeterias, households, potlucks, and picnics across the United States. Its simple ingredients—ground meat, tomato sauce, and noodles—make use of common staples found in almost any pantry, transforming them into a hearty meal on an often tight budget.
Johnny Marzetti was conjured in the kitchen of the Marzetti restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. The dish was named after the brother of owners Joseph and Teresa Marzetti and began to gain regional popularity in the 1920s. (While their restaurants—The Columbus Dispatch recounts three locations—have long since closed and the company sold, the T. Marzetti name abides in the form of a Columbus-based salad dressing manufacturer.) Reminiscent of both lasagna and spaghetti alla bolognese, this ersatz Italian dish is the product of immigrant foodways adapted to a new way of life: Johnny Marzetti, like so many borrowed cultural phenomenon, is an American interpretation of Old World tradition. In essence, the dish epitomizes the American immigrant experience. And like the American immigrant experience, it continues to evolve.
Either baked as a casserole or cooked in a skillet, this versatile dish offers endless possibilities for preparation: its base ingredients can be seasoned in a variety of ways and play well with almost anything you may have on hand. Short of burning the food itself, it’s near impossible to ruin a batch of Johnny Marzetti. Its simplicity—a protein, a vegetable, and a starch—is the foundation upon which an infinite number of dishes can be built and derived. In addition to including my own version, I have enlisted the help of three Columbus cooking/food blogs to present their own take on this classic. Noted locavores Andrea (Food Embrace), Debra (Persephone’s Kitchen), and Rachel (Hounds in the Kitchen) have graciously contributed the following:
- Locally produced sausage and a roasted vegetable sauce are the highlights of Andrea’s Johnny Marzetti with a Twist
- Debra re-interprets her grandmother’s Texas version, using fresh, local ingredients (and a little help from Ms. Patsy Cline) to create Persephone’s Kitchen Johnny Marzetti
- The abundant produce from Rachel’s organic garden serves as the inspiration for her homegrown Johnny Marzetti Ratio Recipe, complete with homemade tomato sauce
- And my own, minimalist take: jarsloth marzetti
½ lb. ground beef
½ lb. sweet Italian sausage
1 small onion, diced
3–4 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper
red pepper flake, oregano, thyme (to taste)
1 28oz can, diced tomatoes
pasta, 1–2 cups, dried (depends on size of pasta used)
grated Parmesan cheese
Brown ground beef, sausage, half an onion, and garlic in olive oil; season with salt, pepper, red pepper flake, oregano, and thyme. When meat is browned and onions translucent, deglaze pan with red wine and add can of diced tomatoes. Let simmer approximately 15–20 min. Meanwhile, cook pasta and drain, leaving slightly undercooked and reserving about 1/4 cup of the pasta water. Mix pasta and reserved liquid into main pan and let simmer an additional 3–5 minutes. Top with Parmesan cheese and serve. (I like to add a little hot sauce.)
There are still several places here in Columbus where the hometown dish is served. For traditional Johnny Marzetti, I suggest the German Village Coffee Shop (193 Thurman Avenue); this is the meaty comfort food you remember from your childhood. It’s served in generous portions and like everything on the menu, its value can’t be beat. Traditionalists should also try Tee Jaye’s, where Johnny Marzetti is featured every Monday on their Daily Specials menu. Those who like a little spice might enjoy Tommy’s Diner’s (914 West Broad Street) zesty offering; it is one of their Monday lunch specials. However, if you’re looking for a modern variation, Knead‘s (505 North High Street) dinner menu features their made-from-scratch Turkey Marzetti (including handmade noodles), which is reviewed here by Columbus Alive.
Whether you love it, hate it, or are indifferent, you have to respect the Johnny Marzetti; if not as a Columbus legacy, then at least for its adaptability, versatility, and resilience. This often under-appreciated, yet seminal dish continues to inspire and evolve, and has earned its place on the American table.