At a corporate headquarters in Ohio, a bunch of people are staring at a spreadsheet from Oklahoma and wondering how on earth their newest franchise location is selling so many hand-tossed pizzas.
"I told them: Oklahomans eat hand-tossed way more than they get thin crust," said Will McLain, who owns (with partners) the only Donato's Pizza in a 700-mile radius. "It's a cultural thing."
That's not the only outlier. With about 60 years of pizza-slinging acumen behind it, Donato's Pizza is a Columbus, Ohio-based chain of fast-casual restaurants with a primary focus on thin crust pizzas and delectable subs. In fact, most Donato's locations are primarily takeout and delivery spots, while the first Oklahoma outpost—near 9th Street on Bryant Avenue in Edmond—is seeing far more dine-in customers than delivery, Will said.
"As things progress, I think we'll see more people getting it delivered or taking it home," he said.
Unfortunately for pizza fans, the sole location in Oklahoma has a delivery radius that falls juuuuuuust short of 700 miles. It's closer to, uh, 8. But don't fret just yet—Will and his partners are planning to bring a lot more Donato's Pizza locations to the Sooner State and especially the OKC metro area. That will give plenty more folks a chance to try the fare at Donato's without driving all the way to Edmond.
So, should you go eat pizza at Donato's? Yeah. But only if you like pizza. Or sandwiches. Or hot wings. Or salad.
First up, let's talk about cheese bread. In addition to some Italian garlic breadsticks that will give you some serious Olive Garden-in-its-prime vibes, Donato's offers asiago cheese bread and garlic asiago cheese bread. As I assume you're all adults with functioning taste buds, let's go ahead and get the garlic asiago bread. On top is a hefty shaving of asiago cheese that melts its little hooks into the fresh-baked bread dough and then starts to crisp up, giving a gorgeous nutty flavor. The garlic adds a little heat and a little sweet, but the main driver here is the asiago and the tender bread, which is practically begging to be dunked in marinara.
I am a fervent fan of sub sandwiches and so I was very pleased to see how well Donato's does them. The Big Don Italian sub is not the most involved Italian sub I've ever had, but it hits all the high points. First off, the bread is fresh and perfect. This isn't a grocery store hoagie roll; it's tender and crispy and it tastes like real bread. The texture is also important, because the crumb is loose enough that it can soak up the Italian dressing that really gives the sandwich a burst of bright flavors to balance out the spice and the fat of the ham and salami. The banana peppers, too, are indispensable. I love that tangy crunch. It gives the whole thing momentum and makes a second and third bite inevitable.
There is one reason and one reason only I didn't try the wings and it is this: I am now a married man and the wonder of a woman who deigned to be my bride loves three things: chicken wings, my kids, and her family. (I'm trying to work my way onto the list, but it's early days.) I'm not allowed to have hot wings when she isn't around. I think it's in the post-nup, which is that thing where, right after the ceremony, she grabs you by the collar and threatens your life if you eat wings without her.
That said, I did have a little chicken at Donato's and it was the highlight of the meal: The Hot Chicken Pizza.
On top of the crispy thin crust is a generous dose of hot crispy chicken, jalapenos, pickles, and a drizzle of ranch dressing. It's like they designed it specifically for Oklahoma. The spice blend isn't enough to get most folks sweating, but that tingle of heat is easily managed with the vinegar from the pickles and the creamy ranch drizzle. The jalapenos are a bonus, so far as I'm concerned, but if you're heat averse, you can ask them to leave it off.
One thing to note about Donato's is they're very intense about their toppings. Not just the quality, though that's there, too, but the quantity. They advertise "edge-to-edge" toppings and they do not disappoint.
The pepperoni isn't quite a pavé, but it's got more pepperoni than you'll get from most pizza joints. Frankly, I'm happy it's not completely covered in pepperoni, if only because grease needs a place to drain. Believe me, as someone who enjoys grease, even I have my limits and a pepperoni pavé is mine.
Among the specialty pies, one I think will go over well locally is the Mariachi Beef and Mariachi Chicken pizzas. They're basically a taco pizza, sans the lettuce, which is usually the worst part anyway. Instead you get seasoned ground beef, jalapenos, fresh tomatoes, and sour cream (to make it "supreme"?). The seasoning has a bit of a chipotle kick. My only wish? Taco sauce. I feel like that would really drive the flavor home.
Depending on the crust you choose, your pizza might be cut differently. The thin and "thicker" crusts are both "party cut" pies, with straight lines up and across the pizza to make it easier to grab a bit. This is especially good for families with small kids who both want their own slices, but aren't big enough to eat an entire slice.
If you're getting hand-tossed dough, well, it comes with a traditional pie cut, unless you specify otherwise. Just something to consider.
And what I consider most with Donato's pizza is the cheese. Mozzarella or a mozzarella blend are pretty standard on local Oklahoma pizzas, but Donato's uses a smoked provolone for their cheese. Mozzarella is great for texture and melting, but it's not the most flavorful cheese. Given the commitment to high-quality ingredients, it's not a surprise that they went for a cheese strong enough to hold its own against the rest of the toppings.
Wrapping up, I was pretty stoked to see the Donato's party twists in person. They're pizza dough sticks, twisted up a bit for variety, then baked and covered in donut glaze frosting and sprinkles.
"Who doesn't like donuts?" Will asked. And I can tell you who doesn't like donuts: aliens bent on world destruction and people who are allergic to happiness. If you're not either of those, you'll probably dig these dessert sticks.
Currently, if you want to try Donato's, you need to come to Edmond, but over the next few years, McLain and his team plan to open several more shops across the metro. One way or another, there's probably a Donato's pizza in your future.