Colombo’s Pizza and Pasta
America’s love affair with pizza has deep roots. What started as a favorite dish for soldiers stationed in Italy during World War II has become a Friday-night favorite to families across the entire nation. We worship pizza, attach the identity of different regions to their pizza styles, and build whole restaurant franchises on that glorious combination of crust, sauce, cheese, and pepperoni. Pizza recipes have been re-envisioned and reimagined through the decades, so to that end it’s not much like the original Italian dish found in the eateries and pizzerias of places like Rome and Venice. Each American pizzeria seems to put its own spin on the iconic, hearty dish, often testing and trying unique combinations of ingredients that make your eyes do a double take, but your taste buds dance with delight. But, the heart and soul that goes into cooking pizza has remained its most important ingredient through all those years and all that experimentation.
Bozeman is no stranger to the pizza love affair. Boasting a multitude of pizza joints, serving every type of pie a pizza connoisseur could hope to enjoy, it can feel a bit overwhelming when a diner is looking for something particular in their pizza, something down home, familiar and classic. If that’s what you are looking for, you only need to set your sights toward Montana State University, cruise down College Street, and find the iconic little hole-in-the-wall that is Colombo’s Pizza and Pasta. Steeped in history and fantastic pizza and pasta-making, Colombo’s has made a name for itself throughout the whole of Bozeman, from local to newcomer, from nursing home to the dorms. People love Colombo’s. You simply can’t mince words about that. I sat down with Cassie Colombo, daughter of Joe and Janet Colombo, to see if I could get her opinion on what makes her family’s pizzeria such a sought-out place in Bozeman.
CM: Tell me the history of Colombo’s. How did it come to be?
CC: This place was actually called Karl Mark’s Pizza, back around 1972, before my parents bought it. It was a play on the owners’ names and they thought it was hilarious. My parents purchased it in 1985 and people thought we were actually Communists. They were worried about us. They even prayed for us! So in 1987, my parents changed the name and it has been what people in Bozeman know it to be ever since. Our family has a lot of chefs and restaurant owners amongst my aunts and unlces, so we sort of come from a history of food making. On the East Coast, our family had Frank’s Pizzeria in Fort Washington and we had a café in Cherry Wood. That was great because my parents could borrow and swap recipes with everyone in the family. Of course, we’ve made them more of our own now. We don’t use the crust recipe from Frank’s as theirs is a more traditional crust you find back East. We have put our own spin on everything and slowly expanded the menu through the years, but mostly we like to keep the favorites that make everyone happy.
CM: What made you want to get into the restaurant business?
CC: Oh gosh, well, I graduated with an English Literature degree from the University of Montana, but I knew I didn’t want an office job immediately out of college. So, I moved to Chicago and had a couple jobs bartending and waiting tables. I really, really loved that work. I felt like I was working with people who were really interested in the world around them, in the world they were working in. As time went on, I missed Montana and realized I wanted to come home. In 2009, my parents invited me back to come help them with the restaurant as they were getting ready to retire.
CM: But they never really retired, did they?
CC: No, and I hope they never do. I love working with my parents!
CM: And what do you love the most about being a part of Bozeman, both personally and as part of a restaurant?
CC: Dogs. I love dogs and within a week of moving back here in ‘09, I had a dog in my house. But overall, it’s just such a beautiful community. It’s a beautiful place to be raised in and to be a part of. I love going to the store and seeing the teachers who taught me in elementary school along with all of my close friends, the people I grew up with. My dad is a serious fisherman, which is why we moved here. My whole family was raised on the river and we couldn’t ask for a better place than Bozeman for that to happen. As a restaurant owner, we have been overwhelmingly supported through the years by this community. I personally think working here we get to see some of the best people in Bozeman. We get anyone from ranchers to faculty being so close to the university here. We get people from all walks of life. Plus, the university offers such a great employee pool. I have had and currently do have some of the best employees working here.
CM: So, what makes Colombo’s unique in Bozeman?
CC: I think my parents created a really special place in Bozeman. This table that we’re sitting at right now, this is table 15. This is the place where my father would sit down to do all of his paperwork. In saying that, though, he knew full well that he would hardly get anything done. He would always be up greeting people, saying hello to everyone. He and my mom always made everyone feel special in here. My mom was the strategist, too. She made sure everything in this place was running smoothly. Together, they brought this sense of moral authority to the place. They are exceptionally good people. They exude compassion and love and that is reflected back in their interactions with their customers and in the way they treat their employees. They also established this tradition of giving back to the community that continues today.
CM: A tradition. I love the way you describe that. Connecting to that idea, what do you want people to experience when they come here?
CC: Above all, I want them to feel welcome. Yes, yes, I want them to love the food, but what they feel here is just as important. I want people to feel comfortable when they come through our door. We have changed a bit with the times, but we are not a new restaurant. This is a family friendly place, a place that’s great to bring little kids, but it’s also a great place to relax and have a beer with friends. We try to bring both of those feelings together for everyone.
CM: What would you say is your best-selling dish? Do you have any specials or events coming up that you want to talk about?
CC: Our baked ziti is always extremely popular. When it comes to the pizza, our house-made sausage is high in demand as a topping. Personally, my favorite dish is the eggplant parmesan. For specials, with school coming up, I want to remind everyone that we have our Study Break special. From 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., we have a slice and a pint as a deal for $5. We do that every day except Friday, since we are pretty busy that day.
Just before I left, Cassie had one more thing to show me. She mentioned that the back dining room had been remodeled a few years ago and one of the additions to the décor was an array of big black and white photos. To walk that wall and take in the photos is to step into the history of the Colombo family. They start with a photo of the celebration of the engagement of Cassie’s grandparents and they finish with a picture of Cassie, her parents and siblings, and their grandparents up in Springhill. There’s also empty space on the wall for new photo additions, including one from Cassie’s recent wedding.
That is the legacy of Colombo’s, and, in my humble opinion, sets it aside as a cherished gem in Bozeman. Colombo’s is about family. It starts with the legacy and love of the Colombo family and translates, through food and care, to the families and people who frequent their restaurant. Their recipes and pizza remain consistently delicious because of that legacy. There is no other pizzeria quite like it in Bozeman and it will continue to be a part of this community for years to come, especially in the caring, compassionate hands of the Colombo's.