How the Humble Pepperoni Roll Became an Appalachian Staple

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How the Humble Pepperoni Roll Became an Appalachian Staple

There are a lot of stereotypes attached to Appalachia and plenty of preconceived notions about the region’s culinary contributions. In fact, moonshine might be Appalachia’s most illustrious artisanal export. The region is often typecast as isolated, backwards and lacking diversity. But that’s not the reality. The mountain-riddled region extending from southern New York to northern Mississippi has been shaped by a mélange of cultures, from Appalachia’s original inhabitants, including the Cherokee, Shawnee and Haudenosaunee to the waves of European immigrants that started trickling into the hills and hollows of the Appalachian Mountains in the mid-1700s.

These days, the Appalachia’s culinary contributions are also still inspired by the region’s cultural mix. Appalachia’s foraging tradition—driven by delicacies like wild leeks, thick-skinned paw paws and morel mushrooms—is still showcased at farm-to-table restaurants throughout the region. But more niche regional traditions have endured too. Take, for instance, the evolution of pepperoni rolls.

A distinctly West Virginian invention, pepperoni rolls have been a mainstay in the Mountain State for nearly a century. Today, the portable snacks are staple at pizzerias, gas stations and convenience store statewide. And, for purists, there are also a handful of historic Italian bakeries still crafting traditional pepperoni rolls using a recipe perfected in the early 1920s.
Not exactly a sandwich or a traditional calzone, the sturdy rolls consist simply of pepperoni sticks baked into fluffy Italian bread. Officially, credit for the concoction is attributed to Giuseppe “Joseph” Argiro, a baker and coal miner originally from from southern Italy. Born in Calabria, Argiro settled in northern West Virginia—enticed by opportunities in the coal mines surrounding of Fairmont.

The arrival of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the mid-1800s catalyzed the region’s extractive industry, and generated opportunities for immigrants willing to labor in West Virginia’s bituminous coal mines. While employed as a miner, Argiro noticed his co-workers consistently packed two staples for lunch: bread and sticks of pepperoni. He decided to combine the two, focusing on finding a bread recipe with the perfect consistency to encase the spicy pepperoni. When baked together, seasonings from the pepperoni seeped into the bread, providing a distinctive flavor profile. There were other perks too—the rolls didn’t need to be heated to refrigerated, and the durable snacks were affordable for laborers working long shifts in northern West Virginia’s coalfields.

Argiro officially began selling his rolls in 1927, with the launch of his eatery in Fairmont, the Country Club Bakery. Thanks to Argiro, the town is recognized as the birthplace of pepperoni rolls, and his bakery is still a local institution. Argiro, and later his son Frank, managed the family bakery for five decades before selling it to current owner Chris Pallotta in 1996. The bake shop still fashions pepperoni rolls using Argiro’s archetypal combination and ships the snack to all 50 states. And, for walk-in customer, a single roll costs just $1.50.

About 20 miles south of Fairmont in Clarksburg, Tomaro’s Bakery also crafts classic pepperoni rolls in their purest form. Recognized as the oldest Italian bakery in West Virginia, the establishment opened its doors in 1914 and was managed by Carmen Antonio Tomaro and his descendants for four generations before selling in early 2022. Pepperoni rolls have been a staple at the eatery since the early days. To celebrate its centennial in 2014, the bake shop famously fashioned a half dozen world-record-worthy pepperoni rolls, reaching seven feet in length. Like the Country Club Bakery, Tomaro’s Bakery ships its freshly-made rolls countrywide and even offers a “giant” option: sticks of pepperoni encapsulated by an entire loaf of bread.

While the original recipe is still standard at some bakeries, the official definition of a pepperoni roll is still the subject of some debate. Twists on Argiro’s original recipe have appeared at eateries statewide, with bakers experimenting with dough, swapping pepperoni sticks for slices and adding toppings. For instance, just five miles south of Argiro’s Country Club Bakery, Colasessano’s Pizza & Pepperoni Buns bakes up rolls stuffed with pepperoni, provolone chees, and Oliverio peppers. North of Fairmont, in Morgantown, Chico’s Bakery churns Julia’s Pepperoni Rolls, recognized as the official pepperoni roll of West Virginia University’s Mountaineers. Following a recipe attributed to Julia Chico dating back to the 1920s, Chico’s offers three varieties of the rolls: double-stuffed pepperoni, pepperoni with provolone and pepperoni topped with pepper cheese. Pepperoni rolls with artisanal cheese even appear on the menu at Bourbon Prime, the farm-to-table chophouse attached to the Marriott at Waterfront Place in Morgantown.

While handmade pepperoni rolls are now virtually ubiquitous in the Mountain State, in the late 1980s, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) almost crushed the cottage industry. Because pepperoni is the central component, the agency proposed relabeling bakeries that produced the rolls as meat packers, which would have meant more stringent restrictions and daily inspections. Meeting the regulations stipulated by the new designation would have required costly upgrades—in many cases, investments that would have been cost prohibitive for most family-run bakeries. But West Virginia legislators, including Senator Jay Rockefeller, intervened. Ultimately, the USDA reversed the decision, and the state’s bakeries continued serving the hardy snacks.

Now, there’s even a legislative push to formally designate the pepperoni roll as the official state food of West Virginia. Known as Bill HCR 34, the legislation compares the West Virginian roll to other regional delicacies, like Philadelphia’s cheesesteaks and bagels from New York. In April 2021, West Virginia’s House of Representatives passed the resolution, forwarding the legislation to the state’s Senate. But, after nearly a century on the menu at eateries throughout West Virginia, there’s no question-support for the roll is ubiquitous in the Mountain State. The only real debate is whether or not to add peppers and cheese.