November 30, 2023

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Aficionadough: Bandit Pizza & Pairings by Rockmill, A Stolen Opportunity

Editor’s Note: This review was initially written before Bandit announced on Wednesday, April 20 that it would close after service on Saturday, April 23. The review has been updated to reflect the restaurant’s imminent closure.

I don’t write often because I don’t get out of the house on a regular basis. When my family flew off to Florida for Spring break, I had an opportunity to steal away to a few places to build up some content. First on my hit list was Bandit Pizza & Pairings by Rockmill. That is a long, cumbersome name, however, the moniker fit the lengthy history of the building. Located at 503 S. Front St. in the Brewery District, Bandit’s (in lieu of BPaPBR) address has been the site of many a stolen business. The brick facade once housed part of the Hoster Brewing Company until the tightly wound temperate members of the Anti-Saloon League in Westerville hammered the final nail into the coffin of the business by launching Prohibition. When CD 101.1 (later 102.5, later 92.9) was at its apex in the early aughts, it called this space home. The next tenant was World of Beer for five years, beginning and ending operations on Halloween. In the fall of 2016, Rockmill Tavern opened with some bang by being named best new restaurant and staying in the top ten rankings in the city for several years. Then a global pandemic happened. Damnit.

The restaurant was rebranded as Bandit, following a different concept in the fall of 2021. To my relief, Bandit showed there is honor among thieves because they accepted the Rockmill Tavern gift card that I have been hoping to use the last 18 months.

I have a long history with this space. I ran tours featuring this address, up to four times per week with the former Columbus Brew Adventures for six years. I researched the history of this building for months, pouring over old maps and forgotten books. I met Matt Barbee of Rockmill shortly after he launched his Lancaster brewery in 2010. The day before the city shut down in March 2020, I sat at the bar of Rockmill Tavern, I savored what was to be my last inside a restaurant meal for nearly a year. I have a very distinct memory of bidding adieu to my pal John, the manager, as I walked out the front door, looking north, then south across a desolate Front Street, I skipped past the harbinger of doom, leapfrogged over foreboding, and experienced the most intense feeling of absolute dread in my lifetime, without collecting $200. Rockmill Tavern did not die on that day, but the KO punch was delivered firmly in the gut. I was connected to the space in many ways, so I was demoralized to see the space slowly disintegrate to an extended hiatus followed by a gradual rebirth. 

Bandit was not a resurrection of Rockmill Tavern, and it did not side-step the challenges that any restaurant faces today, but it did retain many of the trappings of its predecessor. The custom-made furniture of reclaimed Ohio wood and iron maintained a rustic and medieval feel to the setting. The barnwood paneling and exposed brick walls served as a connection of diners of this week to the ghosts of the past and spirits in the immediate present. It is fitting that the upstairs space was called the Hideout, because the darkness of the entire space did project the aura of a redoubt, retreat, a keep, or perhaps a haven. Should there be a zombie apocalypse this week, I will choose to make my last stand at the upstairs bar at least until the beer runs out. At that point, I’ll yank the axes off the Bandit sign and fight my way to a glorious, hopefully non-undead death worthy of a Scottish ballad. I’m not going to rule out that might not still happen because the last month has felt like an apocalypse to me.  

Aficionadough’s last stand – Photo by Jim Ellison

Enough lamenting about what has been lost to time, we move on to what I found on the Bandit menu. Wood-fired pizzas were the focus of the bill of fare. If dining in-house, patrons could build their own pizza from a selection of artisan toppings, or in-person or online, customers could pick one of eight named specialty pizza combinations or an ever-changing and often gastronomically daring weekly special feature, such as (during my last March visit) a highly tempting Crab Rangoon Pizza. It is hard to go wrong with a piping-hot, fresh, wood-fired pizza, with just a trace of char decked out with high quality ingredients.

My research assistant and I enjoyed the Priceless Heirloom: san marzano sauce, mozzarella and provolone, topped with Ezzo pepperonis. This pizza was a no surprises classic combo that was pleasing to the palate. 

Just enough Ezzo pepperoni on the Priceless Heirloom

We got a bit daring with pizza number two, the Lucky Hat, layered with a spicy san marzano sauce, havarti-gouda cheese blend, shaved Tillamook cheddar, chunks of spicy fried chicken, a drizzle of a hot secret sauce and thinly-sliced house-made pickles strategically placed among the triangle slices. The concoction of flavors riffed on Nashville-style hot chicken in all the right places. I found I liked this pizza better during my last slice. The chicken had cooled to room temperature which profiled the flavor better.

The characteristics of these pizzas were from the smoke-fired pizza playbook: a big puffy crust ring with plenty of air and good flavor, a thin, floppy main crust which demands to be folded to eat with any dignity. There is no skimping on ingredient quality at Bandit, everything is top-notch and top-shelf. 

The downside to most wood-fired pizza is a short shelf life which diminishes in 15-minute increments after peeled out of the oven, generally flatlining after an hour (if any is left), and rarely results in a craveable next-day pizza the morning after. The assortment of pizza selections range from $16 to $23, which is a fair price for quality and volume.

The Lucky Hat pizza – Photo by Jim Ellison

Pizza made sense for Bandit. The history of pizza in the Midwest is strongly intertwined with bars. Beer-based businesses in general, have a default food setting of poaching pizza (examples: The original Late Night Slice paired with an any-bar-that-would-take-them business model, Square Slice Pizza at Old North Arcade, Pie of the Tiger at Short North Tavern, etc., etc.) to fill the culinary void for bar patrons. Pizza and beer are a natural pairing so if you sell alcohol, it is the preferred pathway to having serviceable food with minimal staffing and space. However, while pizza is ubiquitous in Columbus, it is hard to shake a craft seltzer in the Brewery District without squirting a pizza purveyor, with so many pizza options to choose from, it might be better named as the Pizza District.  

My dining assistant, who has more of a Bowling Green centered palate, was in agreement with me – we found the pizzas to be good, but we loved the small plates / starters which would be more likely to draw us back for a fast-tracked return visit. The Brussels Sprout Salad was divine in March (but never returned to the April menu, could that be fate or foreshadowing?) – pickled apples, dried cherries, almonds, parmesan and a masterful, mouthwatering but not over the top preserved lemon-dijon vinaigrette dressing. I am sorry to toy with your tastebuds with this description of something you will never have, but it lets you see the potential of the place. And I took a photo. That is what you get.

My associate talked about this salad throughout the long ride back to the SO-HUD district. He is not one to speak of salads, but he did with a near reckless abandon. COVID repurposed Rockmill Tavern, but Bandit brought back some of the inspired small plates of that restaurant. The cheese and charcuterie boards would never splinter your palate. Fire-roasted spiced nuts and the duck fat Popcorn paired perfectly with a Rockmill Belgian ale. Thank you, Bandit, for resurrecting the small plates of Rockmill Tavern if for but a short window of time.  

The Brussels Sprouts Salad – Photo by Jim Ellison

File this under if it is too loud, I am too old, but the music at Bandit, which is an excellent, eclectic assortment for any listener, was too loud. It did not drown out conversation, but it served as just enough of a distraction to be a conversation starter. Thinking of the menu, the decor, and the general ambiance of the spot, I’d pair an evening out here with those seeking a first date (but since there is no replay value, maybe a last dump), in search of some small plates or a small gathering of non-brah mates. A tweak here and there, could have morphed Bandit to Bandido, a respectable tapas bar which is something that is in short supply in the capital city. The antiquated brick and stone walls, an assortment of high-quality snacks and a large percentage of the bar list teased at the chance to transport me to the feel of Madrid faster than my lifestyle or bank account could. 

To expand on the pairings, the cocktail menu was respectable, Rockmill beers are locally crafted and of high quality, with the wine selection getting the job done for diversity and price point. Barbee may be in the beer business, but his start in the alcohol trade and his first Bacchian (I probably made that word up) muse was wine, so there was a lot to work with on the menu. The drinks paired exceptionally well with the menu items and displayed that much thought was placed into how all the flavors combine. The addition of a house sangria and gambas al ajillo might have transformed South Front Street to the new Gran Via. 

Speaking of pilfered opportunities, we will not have the chance for me to see my vision of a decent pizza place transformed into a magnificent tapas bar. And, you only have until Saturday, April 23, for your take on what Bandit could have been, because as this post was being edited on April 20, Bandit announced they are on the lam after service this Saturday. This space on Front Street adds another chapter to businesses stolen before their time at the corner of Front and Liberty.

R.I.P. (Restaurant in Purgatory?) BPaPbR (Bandit Pizza and Pairings by Rockmill). It’s probably open Thursday, April 21, 4- 9p.m., Friday, April 22, 4 – 10:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 23, 12 – 10:30 p.m. My gut says the booze will outlast the menu ingredients, but feel free to drop in to toast another restaurant lost to the challenges of our times. To the next lease holders, might I suggest tapas? To Barbee and company, I sure could use a few axes for when the world falls apart again.

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Photo by Susan Post