“Have you ever tried these before? I like them — A LOT,” the apple-cheeked gas station attendant volunteered as I dumped an assortment of shrink-wrapped pepperoni rolls onto the counter before her.
The truth is I had sampled West Virginia’s unofficial state snack, but never on its home turf — an unfortunate oversight I felt obligated to remedy to properly evaluate the local outlet I suspected might be able to sate Mountain State staffers who dream of the spicy oil-stained loaves.
So I recruited a native of Clarksburg, W.Va., for a marathon tasting designed to get better acquainted with the most iconic pepperoni rolls around.
And it’s all thanks to Dave Gustafson.
A local journalist who’s crossed paths with Congress while tracking the BudgetHero.org project and through his work at PBS’ “NewsHour,” Gustafson set me down the country roads to pepperoni roll heaven by demanding I ferret out the closest possible alternative.
“A plurality of my life was spent in West Virginia, and I have many fond memories of [pepperoni rolls] from both childhood and as an adult,” Gustafson explained in his petition for a no-holds-barred pepperoni roll hunt.
Like many pepperoni roll aficionados, Gustafson must these days rely on sympathetic travelers (“One of my coworkers at my last job was also an Appalachian transplant, and he’d always be kind enough to bring me a bag of pepperoni rolls after every trip home”) or carefully plot out westward routes to savor the signature flavors of his youth.
“When driving to see my parents in Ohio, I always stop at a convenience store in West Virginia, grab a big hot pepper cheese roll, open the plastic end and microwave it for 15 seconds. That makes them pillowy, warm and just a little bit chewy,” he said of his road dining routine.
Gustafson’s obsession appears to be far from unique — at least here on Capitol Hill.
During the recent “Taste of West Virginia” reception, a shoulder-to-shoulder shindig capped by the coronation of the pepperoni roll as king of the 2013 CQ Roll Call Taste of America contest, Hill staffers greedily snatched up the smattering of featured pepperoni rolls, ravenously feasting on fluffy, ready-to-eat offerings while stuffing their pockets — “Maybe just one more . . . for tomorrow,” was a common refrain — with more shelf-stable versions.
And that fierce devotion doesn’t seem to require blood ties to the state, as evidenced by the flood of emails that poured in from West Virginia University alumni who became hooked on the hand-held treat during their Mountaineer days.
For some, like my buddy from Clarksburg, the pepperoni roll is more than mere sustenance: It’s a birthright.
A carryover from a time when Italian immigrants would wander deep into the earth to scrape out a living in the state’s fabled coal mines, the pepperoni roll has come a long way from it’s start as the preferred fuel source of sooty-faced laborers.
Long before copycat bakers and reality TV programming fetishized it, the workmanlike pepperoni roll stood as a symbol of alimentary ingenuity stoked by regional pride.
Charleston, W.Va.-based scribe Colleen Anderson mapped out its humble beginnings in the historically minded magazine Goldenseal:
“The concept is culinary simplicity — bread dough wrapped around pepperoni. And no one seems to dispute that its inventor was Giuseppe (Joseph) Argiro [pronounced AR-juh-row], who came from Calabria, Italy, in 1920 to work in the Clarksburg-area coal mines.
“A common lunch for immigrant miners, according to Giuseppe’s younger son Frank Argiro, consisted of ‘a slab of bread, a chunk of pepperoni, and a bucket of water.’
“At some point between 1927 and 1938 — nobody seems to know exactly when — Giuseppe began placing the spicy pepperoni within the bread, and the pepperoni roll was born.”
Argiro’s original pepperoni rolls remain the bread-and-butter of Country Club Bakery (he founded its precursor, the People’s Bakery) in Fairmont.
But a wild and wonderful array of imitators now abound.
Packing ’Em In
The mechanics of the pepperoni roll are rather basic: bake paprika-spiked sausage into soft white bread and enjoy.
Based on my survey of more than a half-dozen bakeries, size and shape appear to be open to interpretation, ranging from 4-ounce servings that fit comfortably in the palm of one hand (Tomaro’s) to pizza sub-like manifestations (Colasessano’s) requiring cutlery, an abundance of napkins and, in an ideal world, a catnap afterward.
There seems to be some gray area on what can be folded into the baked good as well.
Pepperoni, of course, is required. (Hormel appears to have cornered this particular market.)
But some shops favor seeding the treats with a handful of lean sticks (D’Annunzio) while others lard theirs with wads of coin-shaped slices (Home Industry Bakery).
Various cheeses, from milky mozzarella (Marty’s Italian Bakery) to zesty pepper jack (Chico Bakery) often come into play. As do house-made chili and pepper-laced sauces (Oliverio’s reigns supreme).
And while they don’t claim their interpretation bears any actual resemblance to the neighboring goodie, the pepperoni-stuffed breads ($4.50) dished out at Pie Gourmet in Vienna, Va., could absolutely be a kissing cousin.
The long-standing family bakery, founded by Joseph and Marie Merenda, only struck on the mouthwatering production within the past decade.
That’s when, per a Pie Gourmet employee, baker Dorah Maeda Ogolo decided to experiment with meat-filled marvels. Ogolo got the ball rolling with chicken- and spinach-filled creations, then branched out with pepperoni- and Italian sausage-packed offerings.
A ground-beef-gushing entry joined the ranks roughly a month ago. And custom orders, vegetarian-only, for instance, are accommodated for those buying in bulk (a dozen or more).
The pepperoni-laden globe, however, remains the top seller.
The generously proportioned buns average around 9-10 ounces per serving, making them at least twice as big as the base model meals that litter bakery aisles and impulse buy displays one state over. As opposed to its breadier counterparts, the brioche-like shell is hollow, allowing more room for the wealth of ingredients piled within —a delicious payload featuring overlapping stacks of thinly sliced pepperoni, gobs of sumptuous melted mozzarella and succulent red and green pepper pieces.
A warning to those used to tearing right into ready-made rolls: This bad boy requires some reheating to loosen up the partially refrigerated wonderfulness within.
That said, spending a few minutes camped out in front of a microwave is certainly preferable to making the long haul all the way home — particularly when Pie Gourmet is willing to meet you halfway.
“We do deliver locally to Virginia, Maryland and D.C.,” the Pie Gourmet aide asserted.
CQ Roll Call dining guru Warren Rojas will stop at nothing to track down your regional specialty/state dish/hometown favorite. Put him on the case by nominating your most sorely missed meals to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pie Gourmet: 507 Maple Ave. W, Vienna; 703-281-7437; piegourmet.com.