(This was inspired by a review of LaRosa’s pizza in Slice. I started thinking– are Cincinnati traditions really good, or are they just traditions? The first in a series.)
Is LaRosa’s as good as when I was a kid?
We ate nothing but LaRosa’s pizza when I was growing up. No Pizza Hut, no Domino’s (both conveniently located, and we were within the delivery area). We had Little Caesar’s once or twice, and Trotta’s once (then they went out of business, only to come back). We may have tried Donato’s, and Papa John’s didn’t exist when I was a kid (at least not here). We ate La Rosa’s. Period. We often ordered delivery (Extra cheese, traditional crust, nothing else, because my dad is a very picky eater), but we also went to the Boudinot location, long before its renovation, where my dad worked as a dishwasher in high school.
I actually didn’t even like pizza until I was well over the age of ten. I used to order hoagies: steak, with onions and pickles and mayo, but I never ate pizza. I don’t even remember, exactly, what changed my mind, but I still don’t crave pizza like some people I know do. I was sort of a picky child, but nothing like my dad was (and is). I’m honestly surprised I eat anything exotic, considering his influence, as parents who are picky often beget children who are picky. However, Dad also liked to watch The Frugal Gourmet, so I guess he makes up for the fact that he doesn’t eat condiments, or Chinese food, or anything on his pizza with the fact that he got me into my first cooking show.
So, on to the topic of Cincinnati standards. LaRosa’s is one of the holy quartet– LaRosa’s, Skyline, Graeter’s and Montgomery Inn. As for all of the standards, it’s something that can inspire debate, feuds, and probably a divorce or two. Many natives love LaRosa’s. Many people who’ve moved here don’t quite get it.
What it is: a flavorless, floury, thin crust; sweet, slightly spicy tomato sauce, and Provolone cheese (instead of mozzarella) that, if not piping hot, congeals into one rubbery piece.
I know I sold you on it with that description, right?
But really, that’s what it is. It’s pizza reminiscent of a certain time and place. LaRosa’s was born in 1954, when “exotic” involved canned pineapple and soy sauce, and dishes were less about ingredients and more about “science”, like Tupperware and Velveeta. It’s representative of when the west side of Cincinnati was populated by first generation Americans whose families were from Italy, Germany and Ireland, who were primarily blue collar. Remember, in 1954, pizza was exotic, not ubiquitous– Americans in the Midwest were just discovering Italian cuisine– as Americanized as it may be– which we take for granted today. Imagine your culinary repetoire was along the lines of Betty Crocker– can you imagine how that first piece of pizza you ate tasted? How it would rock your world right off its axis? Remember how exotic sushi was just a few years ago, and now you can get it at the grocery store? It’s the same idea.
The other thing you have to consider is how steeped in tradition Cincinnati is– and LaRosa’s, over the past 55 years, has become a Cincinnati tradition. That’s why their traditional pizza, sauce, and cheese combo hasn’t changed much since my parents were kids, or since I was a kid. In a lot of ways, tastes on the west side haven’t changed since then– Italian may not be exotic, but a quick peek at the dining choices show a heavy emphasis on tradition, value, and family-style cooking.
I have to give it to LaRosa’s– they’re innovative. One number for pizza? That was a big deal. Online ordering? First in town to do that (though their Flash site drives me bonkers). Always trying out new menu items? Fantastic. They’re not resting on their tradition– they’re using it as a catalyst for innovation, and I have to respect that.
That said, do I like LaRosa’s?
I like LaRosa’s for the same reason I like Mrs. Grass’ chicken noodle soup: childhood memory. It’s not the best pizza in the world, or the city, or my neighborhood– but it is a nice reminder of my childhood, and the childhood of lots of other people in town. LaRosa’s, like Skyline, in people who didn’t grow up here, elicits two responses: “I LOVE it” or “I HATE it“– and nothing in between.
Terry, who doesn’t really like pizza, loves LaRosa’s. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve gotten non-LaRosa’s pizza. I’m convinced he just likes the sweet sauce– plus he loves the Meat Topper. Also, they’re the only pizza place that will deliver to my apartment– Donato’s, which is closer to my apartment than the Queensgate location that delivers to me, refuses. Nice.
So was LaRosa’s as good as when I was a kid– nah. My tastes have evolved. Will I still go back to it, as a classic Cincinnati comfort food? You betcha.