There’s little room for error in the complex process of making this bread recipe-based pan pizza.

By Tracy Morin

The story is now legend among Ohio Valley pizza buffs: When Primo DiCarlo returned home from serving overseas in WWII, he suggested adding pizza to the offerings at his parents’ established bakery and Italian grocery store. The humble business—named DiCarlo’s, owned by husband and wife Michael and Caroline DiCarlo—was located in Steubenville, Ohio, in the eastern part of the state, just west of Pittsburgh. Today, the pie style they pioneered, Ohio Valley pizza, is sometimes referred to as Steubenville-style. 

A few years after Primo’s return, in 1949, his brother Galdo partnered with him, eventually helping spread the DiCarlo’s name (and pizza) to other states, like West Virginia, Kentucky and South Carolina. But despite their focus on growth, they didn’t know they had inadvertently spawned a pizza style that one day would be beloved throughout the region—and beyond.

Accidental Innovation

When Primo introduced the idea of pizza to his parents, the DiCarlo family was already famous for its bread, which served as the base for the new addition. “They used big sheet pans to stretch out the bread dough—that’s why it has a crunchy crust,” explains Anna DiCarlo, Galdo’s daughter, who co-owns two Original DiCarlo’s Pizza locations in the Columbus, Ohio, area. She estimates that each tray spans 24” by 18”. Years ago, they’d cut one tray into 28 squares, but modern-day appetites require bigger slices—now there are 24 to each pan. Customers can order by the tray or slice. 

Photo courtesy DiCarlo’s Pizza/Facebook

One of the most unique aspects of the style is that two of the most commonly ordered toppings—cheese and pepperoni—are added after baking, not before. Anna believes this tweak was merely a requirement of the pizza’s preparation, rather than the DiCarlo family trying to pioneer a new style sensation. “I don’t know for sure, but I think the cheese is added after baking because the pans are so huge,” she says. “To cook that style, it’s a 15- to 20-minute bake, and the cheese would burn in that time, so they put the cheese on when it came out of the oven. I don’t think it was intentional.”

Doing It the Hard Way

When made correctly, Anna notes, the cheese topping melts deliciously on the post-oven pie, a process further assisted by placing the pizza in a to-go box. That points to another difference worth noting: There’s no mozzarella in sight on this pie. The cheese added after baking at Anna’s operation is provolone-only, freshly shredded in-house to avoid any caking agents added to pre-shredded varieties. 

Other ease-promoting updates, however, are not off the table, as Anna’s locations recently switched from gas to stone-deck electric ovens. Anything that makes the oven tenders’ job easier is welcome, she explains, because the proper method of baking the Ohio Valley style is fairly complex. “Our pizza requires skill and time,” Anna says. “You have to pop bubbles, because the dough is sensitive. You have to play with it, turn it in the oven, make sure it’s done to perfection. It can’t be underdone or too done. We ask ourselves all the time why we want to do this—it’s more complicated than other pizzas!”

Doing things the hard way is also why Anna believes some customers might shy away from the Ohio Valley style—though hardcore fans remain a passionate bunch. “It’s hard not to love when it’s prepared correctly, but I also understand why people would not love it,” Anna says. “When you have a pizza maker who doesn’t care, it can come out soggy or burned. The margin of error is huge for the way we do our pizza, so you have to find the right people, who take pride in what they’re doing.”

The Valley Invasion

Though DiCarlo’s is known as the originator of the Ohio Valley pizza style, it has spawned plenty of other pizzerias following suit. Some operate under the DiCarlo’s name, owned by family members in Ohio and neighboring states. Several were formed by employees who worked at DiCarlo’s, while others are altogether unrelated, simply performing their own interpretations of the style.

But the number of pizzerias offering Ohio Valley slices, even beyond the confines of Ohio, solidifies its legendary status, despite being a lesser-known style. “There are so many copycats, the list is endless,” Anna says. “Years ago, my dad even had a commissary, where people could buy the ingredients to open up their own shops.”

Despite growing competition, Anna’s operation continues to thrive—proof of the enduring allure of this Steubenville original. She’s on the cusp of opening a new DiCarlo’s location in Westerville, while its Columbus outpost is relocating to a larger spot to accommodate demand. “When it’s done right and there’s love behind it, I’ll hold [our Ohio Valley pizza] against any other pizza,” Anna says. “I understand why customers love it. It’s just that good.”   

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s associate editor.

Food & Ingredients