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Pursuing the Perfect Pepperoni Roll | Noshtalgia

Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call
Pepperoni rolls are a West Virginia tradition — the basic idea is to fold pepperoni into a bread roll, but the variations are endless. This roll is from Colasessano’s Pizza in Fairmont, W.Va.

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.

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