Tony Guinta grew up in Toms River, N.J., where stromboli are king. So he shouldn’t have blinked when he met the pepperoni roll, the unofficial state food of West Virginia.
Like stromboli, a pinwheel of meat and cheese baked inside pizza dough, the pepperoni roll folds spicy pepperoni inside a bun. Unlike stromboli, it insists on plain white bread dough, producing a fluffy package that absorbs the pepperoni oil.
Inspired by Italian immigrants who worked the coal mines, the pepperoni roll was created as an easy lunch for miners to carry to work in their shirt pockets. Arguments abound about cheese/no cheese (it oozes, it can make the bread soggy) and whether to use sticks or slices of pepperoni. The average pepperoni roll fits nicely in the hand, important if you have to keep wielding your pickaxe while you eat. You’d need a whole fist for Guinta’s rolls, which go the cheese-plus-pepperoni-slices route.
Maybe that’s because his butcher shop is in Berkeley Springs, a spa town in the state’s eastern panhandle with more tourists than mines. Born at the Country Club Bakery in the north-central town of Fairmont, the pepperoni roll’s natural habitat is west of the Allegheny Mountains, says Jeanne Mozier, a Berkeley Springs writer and all-around keeper of local lore. They can be found all over the state, she says, but in the 60 mile-corridor stretching from Morgantown to Weston they are piled high at bakeries, lunch counters, convenience stores and gas stations.
Mozier is very clear on the parameters of an authentic pepperoni roll:
- It is made only with “white bread,” never pizza dough. (Guinta’s rolls get a pass.)
- It is cheap. As in ramen cheap. Cheap enough for college students to subsist on. Most West Virginia pepperoni rolls can be bought for $1 or less, she says.
- It is never – ever – served with marinara sauce. Even if you’re from New York.
“As I interviewed people all over the state,” Mozier wrote in West Virginia’s Goldenseal magazine, “it became clear that pepperoni rolls were the food that Mountaineers have shipped around the globe, that brings them back again and again no matter where they roam.”
Here she is, talking to Tony about his pepperoni rolls.
Country Club Bakery is West Virginia’s most famous maker of pepperoni rolls, but they wouldn’t share their recipe. Ditto for Tomaro’s, a Clarksburg bakery famous for its finger-sized rolls. Luckily, American Food Roots’ community member Kendra Bailey Morris had a recipe that we’ve adapted here from her cookbook "White Trash Gatherings" (Ten Speed, 2006.) These should hold you until you can make it to north central West Virginia to sample pepperoni rolls in their natural habitat. Kendra's newest book, "The Southern Slow Cooker" (Ten Speed), comes out in August.
- 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
- ½ cup of warm water
- ½ cup plus ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 or 2 white potatoes, peeled and cut into large pieces
- ½ cup of shortening
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 egg
- 7 to 8 cups of flour
- 1 ½ sticks of pepperoni, cut into thin slices (about 1 pound total)
- For the glaze:
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 egg
Mix yeast, warm water and the ½ teaspoon sugar in a bowl and let stand at room temperature for 45 minutes. It will get foamy. Cook potatoes until tender in about three cups of water (enough to make approximately 2 ½ cups leftover potato water). Mix your cooked potatoes and 2 ½ cups potato water in a blender. Add the ½ cup sugar, shortening and salt, and blend well. Add your egg and blend 5 seconds more.
Cool mixture to lukewarm. Then pour into a big bowl and add the yeast mixture. Slowly add 4 cups of flour and beat with a mixer until smooth. Add 3 to 4 more cups of flour and knead until the dough is fairly stiff but still a little sticky. Place dough in a large greased bowl and cover it with plastic. Then cover your bowl with a wet kitchen towel and place in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours. (Note: the dough will keep in the fridge for 5 to 6 days. Be sure to push down the dough at least once per day.)
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Turn dough onto a floured board and cut into quarters. Continue to cut into roughly 40 small pieces. Take a piece of the dough and push it flat. Then place a couple of pieces of pepperoni in the middle (overlapping and not stacking) and roll it up. Pinch the ends of the dough to hold the pepperoni inside. Place on an ungreased baking sheet. Repeat until you’ve used up all of your dough and pepperoni.
In a small saucepan, melt the butter and sugar. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Add your egg and mix well. Brush rolls with this mixture and then bake them until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes.
For a much quicker version of this recipe, use hot dog buns or hoagie rolls (or use frozen dough to make the pepperoni rolls). With purchased buns, simply fill them with strips of sliced pepperoni, sliced peppers in tomato sauce and mozzarella, and bake as above.