Aficionadough – Dinner at Pizza Constant in My Life: Dante’s
I have vivid memories of my first encounter with pizza. It looked and smelled unlike any other food I had come across in my short life as a toddler in Clintonville. Certainly, in this time of Columbus, variety was not the spice of life. I had no idea how I was supposed to eat the multicolored mix of ingredients on my plate.
For some reason, I decided that my dining room would be the 4-foot transitional space on the staircase connecting the first and second floors of my childhood home. I must have felt the need to isolate myself to study this strange new dish. As I pondered, weak and weary, this picturesque and curious place that I had never seen before, my hunger cried out to me: “What’s the point?!
The cheese on top confused me, it was neither orange nor yellow. I took it off the top. The bread underneath was a little fizzy. Had what I thought was a very odd tasting ketchup. I didn’t finish that first square, stolen from a take-out box from Dante’s Pizza. It was too much of a shock to my system.
Little did I know then that Dante would become a fixture in my family’s life and was in heavy rotation for Friday night pizza for years to come.
Joe Apollonio opened Dante’s in 1973 and the pizzeria has always been a family affair – he named the business after his brother. Family members have been the body of employees for years, and many employees have become family members over the years. After nearly 50 years in the business, two heart attacks, open-heart surgery and a global pandemic, Apollonio felt it was time to ditch the pizzeria. In this case, and more importantly, in the line of this Clintonville icon, it was to one of his employee-family. In 2022, Apollonio appointed Christina Taylor (on site since 1995) to take the reins of the pizzeria with the blessing of pizza-making kingpin Pat West.
The next step was the first interior update since 1966. The end result added more heart and soul to the dining room, handicapped accessibility and very nice bathrooms. Almost everything else remains the same and as it should be. Customers can watch their pizzas assembled before their eyes at the home counter in an experience not unlike a gladiator in a Roman colosseum… Many items are made from scratch. Employees memorize regular orders from their long-time customers. Payment is always made in cash or by check. One thing is new though, you can now pay through Venmo.
After countless years of ordering takeout, I had never dined at Dante’s. I decided to make my first restaurant experience a family affair, with my mother, my wife and my son. As soon as we walked in, I spotted a couple of pals having dinner with several of their longtime friends. All had spent years in Clintonville and they also chose the same day to reconnect for the ultimate community experience.
My family is familiar with the rules of engagement for an Aficionadough mission: Order a pizza, at least half the pepperoni, an Italian sub, and at least one other signature dish. Spaghetti with meatballs and rigatoni with the same were selected. The items guaranteed we would have a roll with butter to go with the pasta dishes – an essential addition, as well as an opportunity to test some meatballs – a potential tipping point for my very Italian wife. Hometown meat hero Ezzo Sausage Company’s pepperoni was one of two pepperoni topping choices, so we opted for that without hesitation. I was allowed a few moments before the first bites started taking pictures. The pizza that was served to us was exactly the model I was eating at the time. The smells, flavors and consistency were all I remembered and hoped for.
Pizza at Dante has a long history that predates the opening in 1973. At age 14, Apollonio immigrated to Columbus from the Abruzzo region of Italy. He started working as soon as he arrived. His first job was at Romeo’s Pizza (opened in 1950) which was Columbus’ first pizzeria. He then moved on to Leonardo’s Pizza (opened in 1953) where he eventually became manager.
The pizza served at Dante today has not changed from what was first served when it opened. The dough and sauces are homemade. A light hint of oregano completes the whole thing at the end. The lightly edged crust is crispier and crispier than the typical Columbus-style pizza. Although I find that many local pizzerias drift towards a light coating of sauce, Dante’s is a place where you never need to ask for extra sauce, it is generously served. I had forgotten over time a Dante’s signature – a light dash of grated cheese on top, which tends to blend in with some of the pepperoni. Simply put, we all enjoyed the pizza.
The bread was fresh and probably from the Auddino bakery. My wife and I shared the Italian sub. We both agreed that our halves were perfectly grilled with just a hint of char on the meats to add to the favor experience. I noticed that our sub didn’t have the ubiquitous slice of iceberg, but a layer of seasoned salad with a trace of sliced carrots in the mix.
The two pasta dishes met. We enjoyed our meal as well as the token amount of leftovers the next day.
The ambiance of Dante’s is simple, it is not intended to be a fine dining establishment but many would agree it is a find. Most drinks are served in a chilled can with a glass of ice. Taylor, the owner herself, will probably be your server most of the time. Bathrooms are spacious with tidy white tiles lining the walls.
The heart of the space is a collection of four photos framed together. One of the photos (top left) shows Apollonio and Taylor together as a link from past to present. For a place as iconic as Dante’s, showing those ties that bind is just as important for guests as it is for staff. When you dine at Dante’s, I hope you take a moment to stop in front of these photos, you’ll feel at home when you do.
Although this was my first experience of dining at Dante’s, it won’t be my last. It was a simple and fulfilling outing that I enjoyed for the meal itself, knowing that I was part of an ongoing tradition dating back five decades.
For more information, visit dantespizza614.com.
All photos by Jim Ellison