By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2007 Gourmet Magazine
A sheaf of pencil-thin twigs of pepperoni is folded inside a tube of yeast dough. After the dough has risen, the whole thing is baked: that’s a pepperoni roll, the savory snack of choice throughout north-central West Virginia. A cooked roll is a wieldy handful about four inches long and resembles the border of a thick pizza. Inside, the red sticks of spicy sausage occupy a tight tunnel, the bottom of which has been moistened by their hot-oil seepage. The sides and top remain soft and fluffy.
The most delicious one we found was at Tomaro’s, a vintage neighborhood bakery (since 1914) in the old Glen Elk section of Clarksburg. While other Mountain State restaurants serve pepperoni rolls that also contain cheese or are topped with sauce and peppers and therefore demand a knife and fork, Tomaro’s has no place to sit and eat. It is a tiny store with a short counter where shelves hold the day’s breads and where boisterous kitchen clatter and the dizzying perfume of oven-hot loaves waft through a door to the bakery in back. A Tomaro’s pepperoni roll is eat-by-hand fare and eminently portable. Midmorning, ours was still warm, and the simple combination of spicy meat and yeasty, just-baked bread was insanely opulent. Mini-rolls, a soulful cognate of pigs in a blanket, were less overwhelming but addictive all day—until the dozen we’d bought were gone.
Tomaro’s delivers to area stores, but it is also a destination for walk-in customers from Marion and Harrison counties and beyond, who stream in the door all morning, especially on Sundays. The bread is stupendous. Regulars know to ask for theirs with a regular crust or a hard crust; even the regular crust has a brawny chew. Serious crust lovers get theirs “hard-crust baked,” meaning it’s baked longer and directly on the hearth. The loaf emerges with an exterior as brittle as a breadstick but is silk-tender inside. Fredda Martin, Tomaro’s sales manager, told us that some old-timers ask for extra-hard-crust-baked, the outside of which feels like hardtack. “The hard-crust lovers are fading,” she admitted. “New customers like it softer. And the soft does last longer.” Martin reminded us that the Tomaro’s motto isn’t just clever wordplay. It’s good advice, especially regarding hard-crust loaves: “Eat Tomaro’s Bread Today.”
Tomaro’s is unique, but it is by no means anomalous to find a great Italian bakery in this part of West Virginia, which is rich with the culinary heritage of immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s to work in the mines, as well as on the railroads and farms. You’ll find superb pepperoni rolls in Fairmont at Country Club Bakery (where it is said they were invented in 1926 as a handy subterranean snack for miners) and at a little roadside spot in Mannington called S&B Bakery and Cafe, which also makes pizzas on Friday.
Pizza is huge hereabouts, and for those of us accustomed to the common Italian-American pie, it is strange. As made at Original DiCarlo’s Famous Pizza, a local chain that started in Wheeling in 1949, it is a squared-off slab of medium-thin dough that is put in the oven with only sauce on top. When the tomato-glazed crust reaches the ideal balance between crunch and chew, the baker pulls it out and strews it with shredded sweet provolone and, if desired, pepperoni and peppers. Although the crust’s heat melts much of the cheese as the pizza is carried from the kitchen, the provolone feels and tastes more like a topping than an integral part of the pie.
Pepperoni rolls and pizza aside, we were wowed by some of the sit-down Italian meals we found during our travels between Cheat Lake and the Ohio River. At Oliverio’s Ristorante, which opened long ago in Bridgeport and now has a branch in a handsomely renovated paper mill on the Monongahela River in Morgantown, we relished Italian wedding soup (tiny meatballs, chicken, and little pasta) and a straightforward plate of oldfangled spaghetti and meatballs—al dente noodles, simple marinara sauce, and a pair of serious meatballs. At Julio’s Cafe, in Clarksburg, where waitresses recite all the best things to eat that aren’t printed on the menu, and where the refined carved-wood bar and plush vinyl booths are incongruously complemented by Lava lamps on the tables, you can choose from four pasta fagiolis—with cream sauce, with marinara, with potatoes and kale, or in brodo. We loved our “paisano salad,” a cold antipasto plate topped with a jade-green garlic-basil dressing.
Good as the plated meals were, the most memorable eating experience of this road trip was on the street outside Tomaro’s, where, as we exited, we were assaulted by the outrageously alluring smell of sautéing onions. On the sidewalk directly across from the bakery was a white tent sheltering a grill, a bench, and a single table. Here, Tony Tiano was beginning to make lunch. The onions were sizzling in the open, while separate pans inside the lidded grill held sweet peppers and hot peppers being steamed. There was no meat cooking because Tony doesn’t make anything until someone orders it.
So we did. Chef Tony cut a six-inch length of coarse-ground sausage made around the corner at Oliverio’s Cash & Carry and tossed it onto the grill. As he poked and worried it for a good 20 to 25 minutes, then split and buttered a Tomaro’s sub bun and toasted that on the grill, he pointed to the storefront behind him, which he was remodeling to become Lou’s Tre Sorelle, where he planned to cook everything on an outdoor grill. The crusty sausage oozed its succulence into the bread and was brilliantly complemented by the hot peppers, provided by the man Tony calls “Frankie Peppers” (Frank Oliverio Jr.), brother of Frances Phares and Angie Oliverio, who run Oliverio’s Cash & Carry. If there is a more perfect sausage sandwich somewhere on this planet, we would love to try it.
We couldn’t leave Glen Elk without a visit to Frances and Angie, who make 75 to 100 pounds of their sausage each week using a decades-old hand-cranked machine. Their little grocery store also features a full line of Frankie Peppers’ jarred peppers—sweet, medium, hot, red-hot—giardiniera, and cauliflower. We told them how much we had enjoyed their sausage in Tony’s sandwich just moments before, and Frances reminded us that she and her sister also soak and season olives—wrinkled black ripe ones in a confetti of pepper flakes and green ones so taut they burst when bitten. So we carried away a half pint of each and snacked on them in between pepperoni rolls, pizza, and pasta fagioli.
Original DiCarlo’s Famous Pizza
S&B Bakery and Cafe (permanently closed)
720 East Main Street