History in the Hills: An appetizing food past
The people of the Ohio Valley have contributed greatly to history both nationally and locally. From the mills that supplied the steel to win world wars, to professional athletes competing in a variety of sports, the people of the Ohio Valley excelled. This also is true in food history.
The Ohio Valley is not unique in the fact that many ethnic groups came to the area due to the industry, but the food culture that specifically grew out of this mix is unique.
For example, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, a part of the West Virginia Humanities Council, the pepperoni roll was a delicacy developed by Italian immigrants around 1927 in the coal fields of Northern West Virginia as a lunch for miners.
This was an easy meal combining pepperoni, bread and cheese into a compact hand-held snack that was unique to the region. The necessity for an easy lunch for the hard-working coal miners led to this foodways innovation.
For most of us in the Ohio Valley, pepperoni rolls are a staple, and one that I had no idea was unique to this area until I left for college and was among folks from other parts of the country.
Another staple that is unique to our valley and is gaining popularity nationwide is what they call “Ohio Valley Pizza,” “Steubenville-Style” or what we know simply as DiCarlo’s Pizza. For my family growing up, there was no other pizza we would get. This style of pizza is totally unique to our area.
According to the history on their website, DiCarlo’s started as a grocery store in Steubenville operated by Italian immigrants Michael and Caroline DiCarlo and their six children. After their oldest son, Primo, returned to Steubenville after serving in World War II, he brought back a new dish he saw in Italy called pizza.
Their first pizza shop opened in Steubenville in 1945 and was in the 100 block of South Third Street near where Historic Fort Steuben stands today. This was the first pizza shop to open in Steubenville.
According to an article that appeared in the Herald-Star in January 2015, Primo DiCarlo, grandson of the founder, recounted that this first shop was the very first retail pizza shop in Ohio. By 1949, Primo’s brother, Galdo, became a partner, and they opened a pizza shop in Wheeling.
In 1951 the Sunset Boulevard location opened and by the late 1950s, 24 shops were open in the Ohio Valley. In 1977, the original Third Street store closed, and a new building was built on Adams Street. Today, DiCarlo’s Pizza has extended from Ohio and West Virginia to Pennsylvania and South Carolina. What makes this pizza so unique is the thick crust, homemade sauce and cheese added after it comes from the oven. To me and my family, this pizza just tastes like home. I also am proud to say that my wife, an Italian girl from Brooklyn, has embraced this pizza as well, and that is high praise, if you ask me.
Another Ohio Valley staple that is not necessarily unique to this area is the Italian cookie, the pizzelle.
The pizzelle was brought over with the Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. The egg-based batter, mixed flour and sugar among other things in addition to the flavor of your choice such as vanilla, lemon, orange or anise. I prefer anise seed to anise oil. The batter must be the right consistency to cook in a pizzelle iron, similar to a waffle iron, but much thinner. The way that these were made in the old days was to employ a bulky and heavy pizzelle iron on a pole that one had to hold over a range, being careful not to burn them.
To Steubenville resident Charles “Chip” DeMarco, there had to be a better way.
In the 1950s DeMarco invented the electric pizzelle iron in his shop called Tri-State Machine and Driveshaft. He and his wife then patented the invention and began selling them all over the country. Mrs. DeMarco also would demonstrate the iron in department stores like The Hub in downtown Steubenville. From 1959-1969 DeMarco sold his pizzelle iron around the country, making the process of cooking the pizzelle a much easier and faster process.
Personally, the electric pizzelle Iron has been a big part of my upbringing. I have fond memories of my dad and grandfather sitting at the kitchen table making pizzelles around the holiday seasons, specifically Easter and Christmas. Being old enough to operate the iron was like a rite of passage in my house and I looked forward to the day that I could take up the reins. I, like so many folks who make the tasty treat, have Steubenville’s own Charles DeMarco to thank.
The people of the Ohio Valley have always been innovators. Our unique foodways and traditions have impacted not only our region, but our nation from the pepperoni roll, to pizza and the pizzelle.
Our history is pretty delicious.
(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)