Is Ohio's Johnny Marzetti Casserole Named After A Real Person?

Classic American cuisine comes in many forms depending on which region of this vast country we are referring to. While both of the coasts and the South are renowned for the distinct recipes and flavors developed over generations, an often overlooked region with its own unique historic dishes is the Midwest.

Triangulated between North Dakota, Kansas, and Ohio, you'll find endless variations of casseroles and lettuce-less salads to fill your strongest comfort food cravings. Amongst these dishes is one known by a full, formal name, Johnny Marzetti. For much of the country, Mr. Marzetti might be as mysterious as other Ohioan delicacies such as stadium mustard and buckeyes, but to those in the know, his is a name of good eating. 

But what did he do to have such a popular regional dish named after him? Was he even real or was some Paul Bunyan-esque folklore? Well, the truth is that he was very real but had little to do with the creation or popularization of his namesake dish. The real story belongs to his sister-in-law, Teresa Marzetti.

From the diner to the dinner table

The legend begins in Columbus, Ohio in 1896 where Teresa Marzetti, an Italian immigrant, opened her first restaurant on 10th Avenue and North High Street. Being located in immediate proximity to the state's largest college campus and within a bustling district spread the word about the Marzetti name, especially as it shared the surname of her signature dish. 

Consisting of ground beef, cheese, tomato sauce, and noodles, there were few bells and whistles to the Johnny Marzetti casserole, but what it lacked in frills it made up for by being filling and flavorful in a way only something fresh out of the oven can be. 

Very few people make a single-serving casserole because a good casserole is designed to be shared. It is a recipe that craves to be experienced in the company of others. That desire and ease of travel are likely why the Johnny Marzetti casserole spread beyond Columbus and out to the rest of the Midwest and beyond. 

Mrs. Marzetti's goal was to bring delicious food to people and more than a century later she still is. Her family's most famous dish maintains its popularity amongst working-class families in particular because of its warm connections to the history of the region, even if most people don't realize it.

The classic recipe

It is theorized that the Johnny Marzetti casserole transitioned from the restaurant to the dinner table because of its relatively easy preparation, low cost, and simplicity. To make it, start by cooking your macaroni noodles until al dente because they'll finish cooking in the oven. 

Brown your beef with salt and pepper and make sure to drain the grease. Add a layer of tomato sauce to the bottom of your casserole dish, then layer your macaroni, Italian cheese blend, sauce, meat, and top with cheddar cheese. Cook in the oven at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. You'll know your Johnny Marzetti is finished when everything is melty and bubbling. Your finished dish should resemble baked ziti but with a more rustic charm. 

Changing the types of noodles, cheese, or lean-fat ration of the beef transforms the dish at its core. Making additions to the basic recipe such as Italian sausage, new spices, or a variety of vegetables or mushrooms takes the casserole from standard to the talk of the potluck.