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Let it roll
Two Fairmont institutions parlay pepperoni into a top-notch delicacy.
This article appeared in the Sunday Gazette Mail, Charleston, West Virginia
Sunday April 21, 2002. By Mitch Vingle - Sports Editor. Photos: F. Brian Ferguson
In West Virginia, pepperoni rolls are seen as works of art. And Fairmont, that Friendly City, is our Louvre.
Those outside the Mountain State simply must forgive us. For we'll choose our buns over those of the Venus de Milo any time.
Pepperoni rolls are just part of our culture, like voting Democrat or kicking off our shoes.
And yours truly was raised mere blocks from the holy pepperoni grail: Fairmont's Country Club Bakery.
Make a stop someday - even if you're not hungry - just to inhale the sweet smell of the bread.
Fairmont legend Johnnie Johnson knew how to rock 'n' roll.
But Country Club Bakery knows how to pepperoni roll.
Oh, sure, you can pick up a roll in almost any state convenience store. Grocery store bakeries churn them out. Bars give them a run.
But there are no soft pepperoni rolls like those made in the small brick building, half hidden from sight, along Fairmont's Country Club Road.
The meat sandwich is so popular that Chris Pallotta's crew at the bakery cuts pepperoni from 3-pound blocks. In one month, that crew goes through 2 tons of the meat.
"It's about a 5-to6-inch roll with three strips of pepperoni," Pallotta said with a smile. "Sold mostly by the dozen."
Simple enough, right? But somehow, some way, pepperoni rolls have charisma. Maybe it's the fluffy bread inside. Maybe it's the hot oil seepage inside from the pepperoni. Or maybe, just maybe, it's the meat sticks themselves.
"Spicy pepperoni is what everybody really likes," Pallotta said. "If you don't have good pepperoni, it's not worth making."
Pallotta's employees certainly know the recipe. They learned it from former owner and baker Frank "Cheech" Argiro, whose father, Joseph, invented the tubular sausage sandwich back in 1927. It was a practical lunch for Fairmont's miners, who needed food that was portable, sturdy and long-lasting. The elder Argiro, a former miner, noticed many of his co-workers munching on a piece of pepperoni with a piece of bread.
"We've got people who have been here for 25 years," Pallotta said. "They know what they're doing. Each roll is handmade with a very good quality of pepperoni."
Two weeks ago, a shipment went from the bakery to Alaska. One Fairmont resident sends rolls to her son, who is stationed in Guam.
What Argiro invented, however, John "Spider" and Josephine Colasessano perfected at their legendary nook on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Ted Kennedy knows of what I write. So do basketball coaches like Rick Pitino, Bob Huggins and Billy Donovan. So do many West Virginia governors and politicians. A picture of old pro wrestler Domenic Denucci suggests even he experienced the perfection.
They all stopped at Colasessano's Carry Out or, most likely, the bar that preceded the Carry Out.
Probably for a taste of the enhanced, foot-long, bubbling version of the Country Club Bakery roll.
And it had roots much like the prototype.
Like Argiro, Filippo Colasessano was a miner. He became disabled and decided to buy a building from Consol in 1919. The man opened a company store and when beer became legal, turned it into a bar, where beer and hot dogs were sold.
After Filippo's death, "Spider" and Josephine took over and began selling pizza and pepperoni rolls in 1957. "Spider" died in 1973 at the early age of 44. (His picture still is prominent and lunch specials regularly carry his name.)
But what the man did for the pepperoni roll is legendary throughout the state.
"My dad put some cheese on it first," said Joe Colasessano, a third-generation owner who runs the place with his mom. "Then he tried some canned peppers. Then he said, ’Hey, we've got some hot dog sauce. Let's try that, too.’ So he let people try them and everything took off from there."
Johnson, who collaborated on the classic "Johnny B. Goode," would be proud. Because these rolls simply rock. The Colasessanos not only fix the roll, they bake it until the bread is toasty, but never hard.
"It's a technique," Joe Colasessano said. "A unique style. My bread is different than everybody else's bread. Our recipe is different.
"On top of that, we don't use mozzarella. We use provolone and Oliverio peppers. Then we make our own meat sauce."
And the rolls are heated to perfection. The provolone initially tickles the taste buds. Then the meat sauce and peppers become the coup de grace.
Colasessano sells and distributes about 300 a day. Some have been sent as far away as Hawaii. Many are taken away frozen. ("The best way to bake the frozen ones," he said, "is to thaw at room temperature. Unwrap them from the foil. Set them out for three hours. Preheat your oven to 400. Then bake, on a cookie sheet, for 15 minutes.")
A far cry from the dry, bagged rolls lying in your local convenience store.
"I don't know how they get away with a lot of stuff," Colasessano said. "How can you put a pepperoni roll with cheese out on a shelf with no refrigeration?"
If you think, by the way, that some of these rolls are so good there ought to be a law against them, well, there is.
"In some states," Colasessano said, "pepperoni rolls aren't legal. It's that way in Virginia. Since the pepperoni is baked in the roll and you can't see the meat, it's illegal.
"I don't understand how they can ban pepperoni rolls, though, when a pizza pocket is OK. It's exactly the same thing. It's made the exact same way."
Poor laws perhaps. And poor taste, certainly.
But there are no worries here. For West Virginians love their pepperoni rolls. We wouldn't be without them. A challenge to their legality would be like challenging apple pie.
See, the rest of the country can have their burgers.
And they can have their tacos.
But for us, pepperoni rolls have always risen to the occasion.
To contact staff writer Mitch Vingle, use e-mail (wvgazette.com) or call 348-4827.
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