There’s a lot of buzz around West Virginia’s pepperoni roll love.
Online surveys consistently rate them as the state’s favorite food, although that distinction is hard to quantify. Nostalgic news media accounts focus on its origin as a coal miners’ lunch, easy to transport and eat. Convenience stores are well-stocked with the bland prefab variety, consisting only of pepperoni and bread, sometimes cheese.
And then there’s a Pat Pelley pepperoni roll.
Pelley, who owns and operates Books and Brews in the West Side’s Elk City neighborhood, takes the foodstuff to a new level. Taste of the South magazine agrees, giving his cherished creation a special mention in its July/August issue:
“Their colossal roll is a modern take on the classic that is a welcomed contender as the state’s best,” reads the magazine, presently on shelves. “When comparing theirs to the pepperoni rolls made to be a portable snack for coal miners, owner Pat Pelley says theirs differ ‘because they’re made to order and served best hot out of the oven.’ Pulls of whole milk mozzarella and plenty of pepperoni rival the basil and Parmesan sprinkled over the top, and the marinara for dipping is the cherry on top.”
The road to the pepperoni roll summit began, appropriately enough, in a coal mine. After a 10-year, lucrative stint as a mining engineer, Pat and wife Clare had saved enough to buy their initial restaurant in Hurricane. And if running a restaurant during two COVID-19-ravaged years isn’t enough, the couple is raising four children — John, 7; Mary Ellen, 6; and Edward and Theodore, 4-year-old twins.
Mining also allowed the couple to meet, outside Cleveland, Ohio, from which Clare hails. Morton Salt — yes, the brand with the young lady and umbrella — had hired Pat to work there. The two met in a brewery.
They quickly hit it off. Pat’s work ethic served as an attraction for her. That’s why she didn’t flinch much when he made the leap from mining to mozzarella. She would prefer the stability of a regular job and guaranteed paycheck. Pat liked it, too, but his hidden passion lay in the kitchen.
“I like stability,” Clare said. “Pat’s more of a risk-taker.”
He liked engineering, but yearned for something else. A native of Wheeling, his thoughts often turned to that town’s well-known pizza, DiCarlo’s. He loved their sauce. Talking about sauce, cheese and ovens revs Pelley up.
“Mozzarella is 100% whole-milk, whole-fat cheese,” Pelley said. “Some people mix in provolone, but mozzarella alone is best. It gives it that rich taste.”
The bread is glazed just so, the top lightly browned and crisp, with Parmesan sprinkled on top, and olive oil and basil blending to a crescendo. And the sauce. Don’t ask him about it. If you do, he won’t tell you.
“I don’t believe there’s a better marinara sauce than mine in Charleston,” Pelley said, putting only Graziano’s in his company. He credits it to the “base” he uses, which is different from simple crushed tomatoes. He uses a special wholesaler. “You couldn’t buy it if you wanted to.”
The baking is hardly slapdash, either. Exactly 550 degrees for 5 minutes, 30 seconds in a 10-foot conveyor oven. He arrived there through careful and repeated experimentation. It all produces a top-flight product.
Unlike prepackaged pepperoni rolls, Pelley’s darlings are indeed made to order and served the right amount of hot. The bread retains the correct amount of crisp, the cheese is creamy, the pepperoni not overly greasy and the basil, Parmesan and olive oil glaze divine. It’s several notches above ordinary.
Taste of the South knew of the Pelley pepperoni roll from a profile published two years ago. The writer loved Pelley’s roll.
And so do his customers. It turns out that, in a place with both books and brew in the name, his pepperoni rolls outsell everything. They represent 35% of his sales, more than all his alcohol sales combined. If he tells anyone he owns Books and Brews, they immediately mention his signature item.
All is well for now. The Pelleys have earned their stripes. Now they might again have to wrestle with the uncertainty of yet another COVID-19 bout. He frets.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Yeah, but you can still do takeout.’ That’s not my business model,” Pat said. “I didn’t put 12 brew taps in the back to do takeout. You can’t replicate the experience of getting together or drinking together. It would be so much easier to deal with it, if it was something in my control.”