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.
“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.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.