The Akron-area takeover of Columbus that started with Swensons continues with this Northeastern Ohio chain's addition to Pickerington
Should pizza be served with fried chicken? If you have jojos on hand, the answer is “yes.”
If those sentences make little sense, you're likely not from the Akron area. Up there, it's routine for pizza places to likewise specialize in fried chicken, as well as fried potatoes that resemble big pickle spears dredged in seasoned flour.
Most born-lucky diners from Northeastern Ohio grow up eating the three specialties together, and know those beloved spuds as jojos. I'm not from that region, but I can testify that pizza devoured with “sides” of good fried chicken and oversize fries sounds crazy until becoming enlightened by the indulgent genius of it. Relatedly, I've been told that the mere mention of jojos will get the juices of Akron-area expatriates flowing.
Those juices need not flow in vain. As you might've guessed from the way this column is unfolding, these Summit County-style pizza shop favorites are now available in Central Ohio. Welcome to Gionino's Pizzeria in Pickerington.
Gionino's, which started nearly three decades ago as a single restaurant in the Akron suburb of Tallmadge, today claims almost 50 pizzerias. The new Pickerington branch is co-owned by Larry Halpin and Dan Shackelford, twentysomethings who became friends while attending kindergarten in Cuyahoga Falls (a city in the Akron metropolitan area) andgrew up loving Gionino's, working for the company in their teen years.
Their Pickerington shop is just that, a shop. Inside, you'll see a counter offering super-friendly service, a big, open kitchen, freshness-attesting sacks of pizza-dough flour, plus stacked-high boxes of potatoes — and little else.
This doesn't mean every meal must be ordered to go, because Gionino's has a symbiotic relationship with Classics Sports Bar, an adjoining separate business outfitted with numerous tables. Customers who'd like the convenience of dining in the spacious bar are handed beepers after ordering.
Gionino's item-heavy menu can induce befuddlement. Fortunately, the helpful servers are proficient at explaining its fare. I suggest first-timers seek a package containing the place's holy-trinity: pizza, chicken and jojos.
One evening, this materialized in a $20 special — a great deal that included a large pizza, five enormous chicken strips (rather than “fingers,” they're more like fists), jojos and a little serving of straightforward slaw. The Family Feast ($28) — a large pizza, eight pieces of chicken, jojos and a pint of slaw — is always available and is highly recommended if dining in a small group.
As per Akron tradition, the chicken and fresh-cut potatoes are similarly seasoned and fried in pressure-cookers that ensure a relatively short cooking time. This gives the chicken (a hefty eight-piece dinner with jojos is $14.75) a thick, delightfully extra-crispy crust with juicy meat underneath, plus a very appealing, peppery flavor bearing faint garlic, oregano and lemon notes. The same frying technique gives the tubers their distinct texture: crisp like flour-dredged fries on the outside, fluffy like baked potatoes on the inside.
Gionino's traditional pie-cut pizza crust — a considerably thinner option is also offered — is rather thick and bready and recalls focaccia. Order a Pepperoni Piccolo ($19 for a large, which is huge) and you'll receive a flavor-bomb with spicy, crisp and delicious little grease-emitting pepperoni disks, a blanket of aged provolone, zippy sauce and a cheese-laced, golden-brown, crispy edge. For something just as good but quite different, the thin-crust Popeye ($19 for a large) — a bold and garlicky white pizza topped with tangy ricotta, aged-provolone and fresh spinach — is addictive, if glistening with liberally applied olive oil.
I also tried a Deluxe Italian Sub ($6.75) on a nice bun and a gigantic Tossed Salad ($3.25) that's as much iceberg lettuce as shredded cheese. Verdict: I'll be back for Gionino's pizza, chicken and jojos.