Discussion (and mini-review): LaRosa’s

(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?

Tough question.

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.

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  • http://www.vandeneynden.biz/blog Rose

    We usually order LaRosa’s for delivery if we get pizza, too. I do like their sweet sauce, although I think it is too thick at times. I have had better pizza for sure, but there’s something in my blood, I think, as a native Cincinnatian that will always occasionally crave LaRosa’s.

    I really like their Baked Royal hoagie, too. :-)

    Cool post, Julie!

  • http://5chw4r7z.com 5chw4r7z

    I won’t say LaRosa’s is the best or my favorite pizza in Cincinnati, but that stuff like crack!
    I literally will eat it until I’m pass stuffed as long as there is any left.
    Delivery, its a toss up between LaRossa’s and PaPa Johns.

  • http://www.pfoody.com Bryan Sherman

    I like LaRosa’s a lot, and yeah, I like it knowing it is not the “best”. Their horrible flash-driven order site has cost them a fair number of orders for me, but not all. I think their addition of “Just Right combos” was brilliant.

    Donatos. *grumble* they won’t deliver to us either. We are an entire 1 mile from the store…

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      The site is far more accurate than ordering over the phone, so I begrudgingly use it.

  • Beth

    Not gonna weigh in on LaRosa’s, not being a true native, but I couldn’t let your Mrs. Grass shoutout go by. It’s the only noodle soup me or my kids will eat. No, there’s no veggies save a dehydrated carrot or two, and there’s precious little resembling chicken, but there’s just something about it – reminds me of childhood so we just keep buying and eating it. We add more fine egg noodles though…

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      Yeah, it’s not good chicken soup, but it reminds me of my grandma, who could make killer chicken soup, but often bought this instead.

  • http://teresalea.net TeresaLea

    I <3 LaRosa's. I never had the "old" versions though I don't think we had LaRosa's up our way till about 5 years ago? I always get the Florentine Focaccia and their salads. yum.

  • Keith

    LaRosa’s pizza is exactly as you described: flavorless crust, sweet sauce, rubbery cheese. I dislike it enough that I simply won’t spend a cent on it, especially since there are alternatives. I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with nostalgia, but I wish people around here would be honest about why they eat it.

    (Likewise, one visit to Montgomery Inn was enough: I felt as if I’d fallen into a run-of-the-mill tourist trap.)

    • Hampton Major

      It goes without saying that you are not from Cincinnati. There are dozens of unique to Cincy restaurants that I will put up against any other cities. The point is.. if you’re from here then its in your blood. Skyline/Goldstar isn’t fine cuisine, however its a chilli that can only be found in THIS city. Not some tex mex bean remix found in every other metro on the globe. Back to pizza, yeah sure you can get your stone oven wood fired masterpiece if you want. But when its time for the game, time for a party, its time for LaRosa’s! Grow up. Quit hating!

  • http://www.roomatthetableblog.blogspot.com kelly

    Great idea! I’ll be eager to read the rest of your series. Do you remember the deli at the Boudinot location? It was the only place we knew of where you could buy rare roast beef, at least back then! And what about the “fancy” white tablecloth restaurant?

    I’m not a native, so it probably goes without saying that I don’t like LaRosa’s pizza. But the Italian dressing? Yum!

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      Yes! I used to love the deli… walking through the wine room, looking at the giant barrels of bulghur wheat, farina, and beans; checking out the cheeses and meats– I think I still remember the entire layout. They continued the deli in the first remodel, but then got rid of it (very sad). I also remember The Wine Cellar and the white tablecloth restaurant… Italian Inn? My parents got engaged there, I believe.

  • CincyCapell

    I hate to admit this, but I like LaRosa’s pizza. I guess it’s a comfort food thing, since I have been eating LaRosa’s my whole life. In fact there are times when I crave their pizza, or one of their steak hoagies. Mrs. CincyCapell, who is from Louisville, hates LaRosa’s pizza; she finds the crust doughy and tasteless, the sauce cloyingly sweet and the cheese to be like rubberized armor. Me, I gotta have it sometimes. Ditto with our local chili, especially if it’s Camp Washington or Empress.

  • RB

    It’s the only pizza (besides a rare choice for Angelo’s) that my dad would order growing up and I usually only eat it now if forced because a friend has a Buddy Card. I have ALWAYS hated how all the topping slide right off with the first bite. But I do absolutely love the spicy, sweet sauce which almost makes up for the crust that tastes like it was baked after a kid used it for playdough.

    Great nostalgic post, Julie. :)

  • http://www.drew-o-rama.com/designcincinnati D R E W

    what a great post! i don’t really care for larosa’s pizza, but i will eat other items on their menu. i much prefer dewey’s or donatos.

    i like larosa’s for a different reason… as a graphic designer i really appreciate their menu and restaurant design. i was taught to support good design while at DAAP. i really like how larosa’s actually puts effort in to their environments, printed materials and web site (even if it is flash.)

    that’s exactly the reason i wont shop at another cincinnati institution… kroger. it’s totally disappointing from a design standpoint. i know that sounds silly, but if they can’t get their act together and design some attractive signage and packaging, then it makes me wonder if they have their act together in general.

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      I know they’re working with some local firms to up their design quotient– check around the meat aisle, I worked with RGI Designs to do some work with their summer meat safety campaign– it’s some of the best signage I’ve seen at Kroger. Plus, yanno, I worked on it. ;)

  • brian

    thanks for kicking this off as I think it will start us listing other ‘za in cinci worth a trip.
    For me, #1 hands down is Flying Pizza up in Mason_Land. Wish it was closer to downtown. A father and son trio who looked (and act) like they just flew in from Italy. Great crust (super chewy – a layer of gluten – on a crunchy crust)..bakers pride ovens, buy by the slice. If you want to fill like you are in NYC on Bleeker – check it.

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      I really ought to try them sometime, since I’m up here daily. I just never think to.

  • http://stevegerl.com Steve Gerl

    Speaking of childhood memories, does anyone remember when LaRosa’s used to have the crazy straws? That was easily one of my favorite places to eat as a kid, but now I am indifferent.

    I’ll usually bring guests from out of town just to try it, but I don’t go out of my way to eat there with locals.

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      YES! I used to love those, in the tall, bubble-plastic glasses! I still remember their texture– very hard plastic– and they tasted a little funny in the first few sips.

  • Keith

    Bad national press: Serious Eats doesn’t like it either.

    http://slice.seriouseats.com/?ref=se-bb4

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      That was my inspiration (and my lead-in link). :)

  • Keith

    Oops! I guess I was reading too fast–couldn’t wait to get to the part about the food .

  • eroslane

    I’m a life-long Cincinnatian.

    LaRosas? It is what it is, and it is everywhere.

    I go through phases where I enjoy it; phases where I swear I’ll never eat it again. It reheats where Dewey’s doesn’t. It’s somewhere our family can meet — even the most-finicky eater seems to enjoy it.

    Their marketing? Genius. Especially that One Number.

    p.s. You are upset Donato’s won’t deliver? Jesus Christ, I’d consider that a plus. Does you landlord use that as a selling point? He should. I’d sooner take a red marker, color a piece of cardboard and sprinkle it with cedar chips (aka cheese) and eat that before I’d take one bite of Donato’s. That’s some nasty shit.

  • Bob

    As someone who grew up in northern NJ eating pizza made by first-generation Italian immigrants, I concur with your description of LaRosa’s: bland, flavorless and the wrong cheese. But what really put me off, was LaRosa’s habit of cutting the pizza into little squares like a birthday cake. Impossible to eat with your hands!

  • Derek

    Ten years in Cincinnati and we’ve come to realize most pizza, but most notably LaRosas, is vastly overpriced for the bland dough and lousy ingredients. The frozen Home Run Inn pizzas from Costco are tastier and a better bargain.

    I did try Ramundo’s from Mt. Lookout recently and found it to be pretty good. Too bad I live 20 some miles away. DeCaro’s in Fairfield isn’t bad if you live north where we do.

    That being said, most lifelong Cincinnatians are fiercely proud of their institutions, food and otherwise. Nothing wrong with that, better to be proud of where you come from than apathetic. Skyline would most likely flop anywhere else, as would LaRosas and Montgomery Inn. Graeters on the other hand is terrific and never disappoints.

  • http://www.foodiewannabes.blogspot.com k

    josh said you had written about this too and i just now got to read it – it’s the same thing for me. do i “like” larosa’s because we ate it every sunday night at my grandparents? and why doesn’t it taste as good anymore? have i changed, or has it?

  • Tracey

    I do believe the sweet sauce is an acquired taste. I absolutely hated LaRosa’s when I first started dating an Ohioan 15 years ago. Many years and a few relationships later, I have at least become accustomed to the taste of LaRosa’s. I still would never choose to eat there myself, but can accompany friends to the restaurant and share a pizza with no problem. It’s funny how most of us still list the pizza of our childhood as our favorite pizza–for me (and my brother too), Joe’s Pizza in Robinson, Illinois is the best pizza in the world and always will be (even if it isn’t).

  • http://californiatraveler.blogspot.com/ suz

    Okay, I LOVED Mrs. Grass’ noodle soup as a kid. My favorite things was to drop in the golden egg and watch it dissolve. Of course, I don’t eat it any more, since I don’t eat chicken, but it is definitely a favorite childhood food memory.

    As for LaRosa’s…it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be around town. Usually, if I order LaRosa’s, I get spaghetti (no meatball, of course). Occasionally, I can tolerate their veggie topper pizza…I like that it has green olives and spinach on it; however, I always order very, very, very light tomato sauce. My opinion is that Adriatico’s is definitely the best pizza in Cincinnati. If I’m at home ordering delivery pizza, it’s usually Donato’s or Domino’s. Outside of Chicago deep dish pizza (Giordano’s) and Adriatico’s, the best pizza I’ve had is from West Coast pizza chain Round Table (http://www.roundtablepizza.com/RTP/HI/).

  • carol

    You can like or not but it has to be the worst value for your money.

  • vudutu

    Not a LaRatsos fan, dumbed down to appeal to the masses. I do have fond memories of the Boudinot location and do you remember Zinos? Romundos is my current fave pie.

  • Butterfly

    LaRosa’s and Snappy Tomato were the two pizza places near my house growing up. I loved Snappy, nice big thick crust and just right pizza sauce. As a kid, I don’t remember LaRosa’s being that bad, but as an adult I can’t stand how the toppings slide off the pizza. I also ABSOLUTELY hate how it smells like sweaty gym socks when reheated. That alone makes me never want to order the pizza. Plus, they’ve always been much more expensive for their pizza than any other place. Now, I order from Papa John’s (great, but must have the extra sauce, otherwise it’s no good,) and from Donato’s. I happen to love that Donato’s has the edge to edge toppings, and that everything has a little zing to it.

  • Richard

    I lived in Fairfield for 4 years during the late 90′s. While I cannot speak to the pizza I do know the spaghetti was as good as any I have ever tasted, and I have tasted a lot. Those of you lucky enough to be living in their service area should appreciate what a wonderful establishment you have there and the price was always very reasonable!

    • http://winemedinemecincinnati.com julie

      Well, I’m glad it’s locally owned and all, but I’m certain it’s more expensive because, in some places, it’s the only game in town.

  • Laura Schmidt

    Larosas is the first thing I crave after being sick or hungover. It reminds me of every friday, my parents going out to dinner, leaving us kids,Grandad, Larosas and one bottle of precious coke to split between the 4 of us. This was of course followed by our other friday fave…The Dukes Of Hazzard. Bo….you were so hot! My Grandad looooved ol’ Boss Hog! THIS is what Larosas means to me.

  • SHHU

    LaRosa’s, JTM, and Kahns are by far the worst Cincinnati food traditions….and the value on LaRosa’s simply could not be any worse….

  • http://nearlythebionicwoman.com Christina Baita

    This is a great debate that I hadn’t really thought about until now. I really like Dewey’s so that Michael and I can watch through the window and also since I can just buy the crust and make it at home. I have gotten Donato’s before and thought it was OK. My work orders Snappy Tomatoes for parties and it’s the first time I ever had pizza with ranch dressing. Not bad. I do love Papa John’s but my husband says it makes him sick…
    As for LaRosa’s, we really like the bacon & pineapple and the spinach florentine. The sauce really is a different. I came up from Florida so my only memory of pizza in Cincinnati is a place up in Mt Adams. We got a deep dish with just about everything but anchovies on it!
    Great! Now, I want pizza and I am eating GF. Gotta go bake until someone brings a Pizza Fusion to Cincinnati!
    .-= Christina Baita´s last blog ..Warranty On A Knee Replacement? =-.

  • John

    I laughed when I read your review, because I remember a short time after I moved to Cincinnati (about 15 years ago) when the Enquirer had a “favorite pizza” poll, and LaRosa’s won. The Enquirer published comments from voters, and nearly every person who vote for LaRosa’s said they did so for nostalgic reasons (one person said it reminded him of the pizza he used to get in the high school cafeteria), not for taste.

    This was my first inkling that there may be some truth to the rumors that the Midwest is, um, lacking. What is it about a personality that would prefer a comfortable, familiar experience to a sensual quality? And in the years that followed, I came to realize that that would define the Cincinnati experience.

    LaRosa’s, as you pointed out, makes terrible pizza. The fact that it is so popular, in terms of sheer quantity of portions sold, says something about Cincinnati. It makes living here all that much more fun … when you need to seek quality, and it’s difficult to find it, it makes quality that much more enjoyable.