The original rolls were likely baked by Italian immigrants to feed coal miners.

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Last summer, an historical marker was placed outside Country Club Bakery in Fairmont, West Virginia, the 94-year-old still-operational landmark that claims to be the birthplace of the state's iconic pepperoni rolls. The red-and-white Legends and Lore sign describes the pep-roll as a "West Virginia delicacy created by Italian families in Fairmont to feed local coal miners," before adding that "variants are popular statewide." 

"West Virginia's official folklorist contacted us several months ago to let us know about the Legends & Lore marker program," Leisha Elliott, executive director of the Marion County Convention and Visitors Bureau said at the time. "She encouraged us to apply for signage to mark the birthplace of West Virginia's official food." 

pepperoni roll
Credit: Getty Images / Foodcollection

Although you'd be hard-pressed to find a food more synonymous with the Mountain State than the pepperoni roll, that "official" designation isn't really official yet—although it's getting a lot closer. On Monday, the State House of Representatives passed a bill that would declare it as the state food of West Virginia, and the legislation has been sent on to the state Senate rules committee. 

According to Country Club Bakery, the pepperoni roll was invented by its founder Giuseppe 'Joseph' Argiro. In the early 1920s, the Calabrian immigrant worked in the coal mines in the northern part of the state, and noticed that other Italian miners' lunches were typically "a slab of bread, a chunk of pepperoni, and a bucket of water." 

When Argiro switched careers, he thought about those long shifts in the mines, and wondered if he could improve on those shelf-stable sandwiches. He had the idea to bake pepperoni sticks inside a soft bread roll, which meant that workers could keep them in their uniform pockets and eat them one-handed. According to the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture, and History, Argiro tested his new concept at beer halls that were popular with the (literal) underground crowd, and they were an immediate hit. 

"Argiro is the one who got the credit. There are a few other Italian bakeries in the area who could've come up with a similar concept around the same time. The other bakery that has kind of contested it a little bit is Tomaro's Bakery, which is West Virginia's oldest Italian bakery"  Candace Nelson, the author of The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll, told USA Today 10Best

"The Italian-American community was very close-knit. The families were friends, they talked and nobody really wrote this stuff down, so it's hard to pinpoint who may have sold the very first one. Tomaro's has kind of conceded the title of birthplace of the pepperoni roll to Country Club Bakery." (Tomaro's still exists, too: it's now 107 years old.) 

And, as that sign outside Country Club Bakery says, they are still insanely popular throughout the state. The town of Mannington—less than 15 miles from Fairmont—drops an oversized pepperoni roll at midnight on New Year's Day. The minor league West Virginia Black Bears baseball team has a trio of pepperoni rolls who race each other around the field between innings. And there's a Major League Eating-sanctioned pepperoni roll eating contest that takes place during the annual Three Rivers Festival. (Joey Chestnut is both the defending champion and the record-holder, after downing 43 rolls in 10 minutes during the 2019 competition.) 

And if the State Senate passes the legislative equivalent of a layup, then that "official food" thing will be... well, finally official.