Pepperoni rolls

West Virginia’s unofficial official food

November/December 2015


Pepperoni rolls might not be considered typical breakfast food, but that does not keep hungry epicureans from lining up at bakeries all over North Central West Virginia early in the morning, waiting to purchase the warm, fresh, just-baked buns.
“They can come from the time we are open early in the morning at 7:30 up to noon or 1, and get them hot,” said Janice Brunett, whose family runs the oldest Italian bread bakery in West Virginia, Tomaro’s Bakery Inc., in the Glen Elk section of Clarksburg, established in 1914.
One county north, in Fairmont, the same phenomenon happens at Country Club Bakery.
“The regulars start coming at 7, 7:30,” said Chris Pallotta, who owns the business with his family. “They are beating down the door.”
Of course, Country Club Bakery is promoted as the place where the pepperoni roll — a doughy bun filled with sticks or slices of pepperoni and sometimes cheese — was invented in the late 1920s by Giuseppe Argiro, whose son, Frank, sold the business to the Pallottas 18 years ago.
“He would say the guys would be working in the mines and their favorite snack was to have a stick of pepperoni and a loaf of bread,” Pallotta said. “So his dad decided to start baking the pepperoni inside the bread for their lunch.”
Nearly 90 years later, pepperoni rolls remain oddly regional to West Virginia — mostly in the north — and yet somewhat famous at the same time.
When Beckley-raised filmmaker Morgan Spurlock appeared on the WNYC podcast “The Sporkful” last year to talk about Guinness beer, host Dan Pashman mixed things up by springing some MacGyvered New York City pepperoni rolls on Spurlock, who recalled them fondly from his childhood.
“In West Virginia, there is a place called Gino’s Pizza, where as a kid, I would go all the time and get pepperoni rolls,” he said. “And my mother, my whole childhood, would make homemade pepperoni rolls.”
He still loads up on them when he flies out of Charleston’s Yeager Airport, where they are sold, Spurlock noted.
Another West Virginian who lives in New York City, Kirsten Wyatt of Clarksburg, an actress who has appeared on Broadway, recently worked her love of pepperoni rolls into her routine when she performed a hometown-tailored version of her one-woman show, “Gypsies, Tramps and Elves,” at a Clarksburg League for Service fundraiser in September.
“I can get any kind of food I want in NYC at any hour,” she said in her monologue. “But there are many nights where all I want is a Tomaro’s pepperoni roll, with mozzarella cheese and Oliverio’s Peppers inside warmed up at just the right temperature so that the cheese is melted and the bread is toasted but you can take a big bite without burning your mouth.”
Spurlock laughed when Pashman called pepperoni rolls the “official food of West Virginia.” But Google “official food of West Virginia,” and guess what comes up? Not that legislators have not tried. A House of Delegates resolution was introduced, but not passed, in 2013.
National publications — perhaps most impressively the New York Times in 2009 under the headline “Fast Food Even Before Fast Food” — have sent reporters to the front lines of North Central West Virginia.
Once here, the scribe dutifully makes the rounds, maybe going from Tomaro’s to D’Annunzio’s to Abruzzino’s to Home Industry Bakery in Harrison County, Country Club and Colasessano’s Pizza in Fairmont and Chico’s Bakery in Morgantown, contemplating the meat-to-bread ratio of slices versus sticks of spicy pepperoni and hot pepper cheese versus mozzarella or provolone or no cheese at all, trying to find out the secret to a good roll.
Or, if you are Dave Gustafson, who grew up in Jane Lew and now lives in the D.C. area, where he works for Defense News, you stop at a gas station at 2 in the morning on your way to visit your parents in Ohio to pick some up.
“Now they are more of a treat that reminds me of home and many years of living in West Virginia,” he said.
And like Spurlock, Gustafson prefers his pepperoni sliced, because, “I think there is more surface area to sink your teeth into than with sticks.”
However, as a guy who buys random brands of pepperoni rolls at gas stations, he admitted, “I’ll eat any kind of pepperoni roll, but the ones I tend to prefer are the ones with the spiciest cheese.”
Home Industry Bakery in Clarksburg tries to accommodate all palettes, making three varieties, said co-owner Pam Harris — regular, hot pepper cheese and provolone.
That might have given the bakery a bit of an edge during the recent “pepperoni roll wars of 2015” as Sheetz convenience stores decided, in a departure from the past, to only sell one brand in their West Virginia locations. Home Industry won the contract.
“They talked to each one of the vendors and thought it would be best for them,” Harris added.
At Country Club Bakery, however, the pepperoni rolls come the old-fashioned way, with no cheese added. Why tinker with success? The notoriety of being the bakery that invented the pepperoni roll already means Pallotta gets a lot of phone calls and visits from reporters.
In September, a man from the Zagat restaurant guide descended on the bakery, he added, taking video footage and photographs and asking a lot of questions.
“They come by all the time.”
Pallotta and his crew do their best to churn out the pepperoni rolls, with a baker arriving at Country Club at midnight and nine more crew members at 2:30 a.m. to work like elves through the wee hours to have them hot and fresh in the morning.
“We’ll do anywhere from 250 dozen to 500 dozen in a day,” Pallotta said. “It just depends.”
At Chico Enterprises in Morgantown, that number easily can reach 800 dozen in a day, said bakery supervisor Gary Miller.
Julia’s Original Pepperoni Roll, named for the grandmother of current owner Sam Chico, was a familiar sight in the area’s Dairy Mart convenience stores, most of which have closed. But now the delicacy can be found at West Virginia University’s Mountainlair, Milan Puskar Stadium, the Coliseum and at the Monongalia County Ballpark, home of the West Virginia Black Bears, where they are served loaded with chili and cheese as a popular specialty item.
And instead of hot dogs or pierogies, the iconic food costumes worn by the racers who run around the bases during breaks between innings are, of course, pepperoni rolls, by the names of Hot Pepper Hank, Double Stuff Dave and Pepperoni and Cheese Patty.
Back in Fairmont, the West Virginia Three Rivers Festival set up a contest that gives a local bakery bragging rights for a year on whose are best. Firehouse Cafe in Fairmont is the current trophy holder, while Country Club Bakery and Home Industry have been past winners.
Then, in 2011, seeing the potential of a new food sport, Major League Eating (MLE) stepped in and decided the festival also would be a good place to see how many pepperoni rolls can be consumed in 10 minutes by competitive eaters. In 2015, that was Matt Stonie, who set a world record by scarfing down 34.
“It draws such a fun atmosphere to the pepperoni roll, which people around here are familiar with, but people on a national scale are not as familiar,” C’Anna Keffer, a festival board member, said earlier this year.
The Firehouse Cafe’s win in the professional bake-off heralds a new era as area restaurants get in the business of creating their own versions of West Virginia’s favorite delicacy.
John Menas, owner of Colasessano’s Pizza in Fairmont, noted that in spite of his restaurant’s name, about 40 percent of the food that comes out of the oven is pepperoni rolls, using the pizza dough recipe. To go along with the pizza theme, diners can get their rolls with any combination of sauce, provolone cheese and sweet, hot or mixed peppers.
Sue Hartman, the chef at Terra Cafe in Morgantown, regularly offers a vegetarian roll with feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and spinach in addition to her regular pepperoni rolls, which recently earned a shout-out from Southern Living magazine.
And Matt Smailes, owner of Green Arch Market in the South Park neighborhood of Morgantown, makes pepperoni rolls to order, featuring sliced pepperoni and a mix of provolone and mozzarella cheese, or hot pepper cheese by request. He also makes a pepperoni roll pizza.
His motivation? “The people of West Virginia’s love of pepperoni rolls, combined with something I loved in my early 20s.”