Wellsburg Native Tells Pepperoni Roll Story

"The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll" by Wellsburg native Candace Nelson was released Thursday by West Virginia University Press.

"The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll" by Wellsburg native Candace Nelson was released Thursday by West Virginia University Press.

The humble West Virginia pepperoni roll, born in the kitchens of coal miners’ wives and perfected in the Italian-owned bakeries of North Central West Virginia, has been featured in Bon Appetit magazine and on the Food Network. It has been the topic of heated retail controversies and state legislation. It’s the centerpiece of annual eating contests and bake-offs.

And now, it has its own book.

Wellsburg native Candace Nelson, a 28-year-old journalist-turned-marketing professional at West Virginia University, said she penned the book in the hope of compiling “the most comprehensive story and history of the pepperoni roll.”

“The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll” was released Thursday by West Virginia University Press, with a foreward by West Virginia state folklorist Emily Hilliard.

The shelf-stable, portable pepperoni roll –consisting in its most basic form of yeast dough wrapped around sticks or slices of pepperoni — was commonly found in the lunch pails of Italian immigrants working in the West Virginia coal mines. The ingredients were usually at hand, they were easy to handle while eating and could be consumed at room temperature.

In the book, Nelson notes that Giuseppe “Joseph” Argiro is credited with commercializing the pepperoni roll at Country Club Bakery in Fairmont around 1927. They now can be found throughout West Virginia, on school lunch menus, at gas stations, on pizza parlor menus, at tailgate parties and at ballparks. Outside the state, however, they can be much harder to find.

Nelson said she didn’t realize this favorite food was unique to her home state until she graduated from Brooke High School and went to WVU. She said her first reaction to her new out-of-state friends who’d never heard of the pepperoni roll was: “What did you use for fundraisers in school?” At Brooke, she said, they were always selling DeFelice Bros. Pizza pepperoni rolls to raise money.

“It’s always fun to introduce people to the pepperoni roll. It’s almost like we have this secret snack here,” she said in a recent phone interview.

Nelson said while she loves to eat pepperoni rolls, her interest in them grew when her editor at the Charleston Daily Mail assigned her to cover the introduction of a bill in the state Legislature to make the pepperoni roll the official state food.

The bill didn’t pass, but she ended up writing a series of articles on the snack, which, along with her blog about food culture in West Virginia (Candace Lately), led to the book deal.

In the first half of the book, she details the origins of the pepperoni roll along with the stories of nine North Central West Virginia bakeries known for their pepperoni rolls, including the original, Country Club Bakery, Tomaro’s Bakery in Clarksburg, D’Annunzio’s Italian Bread in Clarksburg, Abruzzino’s Italian Bakery in Gypsy, Chico Bakery in Morgantown (home of Julia’s Pepperoni Rolls, which can be found at Ohio Valley Convenient stores and is the official provider for West Virginia University), Colasessano’s World Famous Pizza & Pepperoni Rolls in Fairmont, Rogers and Mazza’s Italian Bakery (Marty’s Bakery) in Clarksburg, Home Industry Bakery in Clarksburg (which landed the exclusive Sheetz contract in West Virginia after a controversy about outsourcing the product to Pennsylvania) and The Donut Shop in Buckhannon; plus, one western West Virginia bakery, JR’s Donut Castle in Parkersburg, which turns out about 3,000 eight-pack bags six days a week to sell at area gas stations.

Nelson interviewed each bakery owner and tells about its history and current operations, including details about the way each makes pepperoni rolls — what kind of bread, whether they include other ingredients, such as cheese, sauce or peppers, and, most important, what form the pepperoni takes.

“Sticks versus slices, that’s a very hot topic,” Nelson noted. At least one popular purveyor of the pepperoni roll, The Donut Shop, grinds its pepperoni. Often the personal preference of the customer is based on which bakery he or she grew up patronizing, Nelson discovered.

Nelson also includes chapters on the science of making the pepperoni roll — from how yeast does its job to the distribution of fat from the pepperoni; along with chapters on the pepperoni roll in the headlines; venues where you can buy them and events featuring them, such as the Godlen Horseshoe Great Pepperoni Roll Cook-off and the pepperoni-roll eating contest at the West Virginia Three Rivers Festival.

Sprinkled throughout the book are memory capsules written by West Virginians and expatriates, including “Inside Appalachia” producer Roxy Todd, who weighs in on slices vs. sticks (sticks, of course), and the Sheetz controversy; and Follansbee native Molly McClain Cribbs, who said she and her friends used to beg their Brooke High teacher to let them out of class two minutes early so they could be the first in line to get pepperoni rolls at lunch.

The first page after the title page features Morgantown native John Angotti, known locally for his music, sharing how his family came from San Giovanni in Fiore, where many North Central West Virginians hailed from, and how his mother made pepperoni rolls when he was growing up. His grandmother expected her children to assimilate, “But the next generation,” Angotti said, “we want to show we’re proud and Italian — the family, the religion, the food. And pepperoni rolls are part of that.”

Nelson’s book also offers a few pepperoni roll recipes, including one by state folklorist Emily Hilliard, who wrote the forward, and several expats who were forced to create their own recipes after being unable to find their favorite snack in their new states. (Note: Several of the bakeries featured in the book ship their rolls.)

In the Ohio Valley, Greco’s in Wheeling has a reputation for its pepperoni rolls. It was listed last year among the top 12 pepperoni roll purveyors in West Virginia on onlyinyourstate.com. Pepperoni rolls can be found on the menus of most local pizza parlors or picked up at grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations or, of course, from local students selling them for fundraisers.

Nelson said, as a person who loves to tell people’s stories — especially people in her home state — she feels honored to have gotten the opportunity to write this book. Food brings people together, and the simple, humble and utilitarian pepperoni roll is no different, reflecting “a deep connection to a steadfast, resilient group of people,” she writes in the book’s conclusion. “The pepperoni roll carries with it far more than physical sustenace; it carries lifetimes of memories, experiences and emotions. The pepperoni roll means a little something different for everyone, but for everyone, it always means West Virginia.”

So, does she have a favorite?

“They’re all good, depending on what you’re in the mood for,” she said.

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