WASHINGTON — If you catch yourself in conversation with a West Virginian on the topic of food, there’s no doubt you’ll hear about the pepperoni roll. The handheld snack is as inherent to the Mountain State’s culinary identity as bagels are to New York and as deep dish is to Chicago.
“The first person I met who didn’t know what a pepperoni roll was, I was shocked,” said Candace Nelson, author of “The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll.”
“My first question was, ‘What did you sell at fundraisers in high school?’ because that was just so standard. You have them at tailgates, I’ve seen people have them as wedding favors — it’s just such a part of our culture, part of our history.”
Now, the West Virginia staple is available in the nation’s capital at Pepperoni Chic, the city’s first restaurant concept dedicated to the regional roll.
Karen Audia Shannon — a native of Fairmont, West Virginia, the birthplace of the pepperoni roll — recently opened the pop-up on Georgia Avenue in D.C.’s 16th Street Heights neighborhood. There, she sells 11 different kinds of pepperoni rolls, alongside Calabrian-inspired pastas, salads and desserts.
The history of the pepperoni roll is as rich as the dish itself. In the early 1900s, the north-central part of the state saw an influx of Italian immigrants who came to the U.S. to work in the coal mines. Meals of leftover bread and pepperoni — an American version of salami — became a popular lunch-of-choice for the Italian miners.
“They took it into the mines because it’s very invincible. I always say you can put pepperoni in a glove compartment and a week later it will be fine,” Shannon said.
In the 1930s, Fairmont baker Giuseppe Argiro caught onto the trend and started baking sticks of pepperoni inside bread dough. Thus, the pepperoni roll was born.
“People were taking them in the mines, wives were making them at home, they became very popular and everywhere — they were omnipresent,” Shannon said.
And in Fairmont and other cities nearby, they still are.
“When I say everywhere in Fairmont, I really mean it — gas stations, convenience stores, there’s hardly a bar in Fairmont that doesn’t have pepperoni rolls on the menu,” she added.
The traditional roll sticks to its grab-and-go roots. Pepperoni — often sticks, not slices, although a debate rages on in regard to the best form of meat — is paired with cheese and baked inside a soft Italian roll that’s roughly the size of a hot dog bun.
Then, there are variations. Some rolls are dressed up with peppers, sauce — even chili. At Pepperoni Chic, Shannon, the former owner of Petitto’s Ristorante d’Italia and Dolce Finale, makes everything from a roll stuffed with pepperoni, meat sauce, medium-hot peppers and provolone, to a vegetarian roll that’s filled with eggplant, tomatoes, black olives, peppers, capers and cheese.
The recipe she uses to make the bread is her mother’s; the chili comes from her aunt.
“We’re trying to be as close to authentic as the original,” Shannon said about her take on the dish.
“So far, cross my fingers, we’ve been able to please the West Virginians who are going to be the harshest critics.”
Pepperoni Chic is technically a pop-up, but Shannon said she’ll be in the space for the remainder of the year, after which she hopes to find a permanent home and develop a more expansive menu featuring classic Calabrian fare.
Pepperoni Chic, 5111 Georgia Ave. NW, is open Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Stay tuned for possible Sunday hours.