FAIRMONT — Eric Popovich woke up in his hometown of Masillon, Ohio on Saturday morning and set out for Fairmont 200 miles away with a car full of pepperoni rolls, determined to participate in the third annual Amateur Pepperoni Roll Bake-Off at the West Virginia Three Rivers Festival.
His journey took him smack dab through Wheeling, and on the way back, he planned to stop at Wheeling Island to gamble with at least some of his second-place earnings of $200.
“My friends heard about it while they were messing around on the Internet and said, ‘You’ve got to enter,’” Popovich said. “My family has always made them.”
Fairmont is considered by many to be the birthplace of the pepperoni roll, a food that was easy for miners to take with them to work. However, between Popovich and first-place winner Joe Waitkus, a Pittsburgh-area native who took his wife’s pepperoni bread recipe and converted it into the hometown treat, it sounds as if there might be some tri-state competition.
Waitkus, who runs a computer lab at West Fairmont Middle School, won after an apparent four-way tie was settled by an already-stuffed judging team that consisted of festival pageant queens and contest sponsors. His distinctive-looking pepperoni rolls featured an egg wash on the inside and outside and were sprinkled with oregano and parsley.
“I thought I’d give it a shot. I don’t have anything to lose,” he said of his first time entering the contest.
Thirty-three contestants entered the contest and 27 of them showed up, said Joe Merendino, president of the festival’s board of directors, who noted that five contestants entered the inaugural bake-off two years ago and 15 entered last year.
“I think that’s wonderful,” he told the crowd under a large tent at Palatine Park where the festivities were held.
Pepperoni rolls go back nearly 100 years in this area, and Fairmont has been called “the Pepperoni Roll Capital of the World” as some consider Giuseppe Argiro of Country Club Bakery to have invented them in the 1920s.
As such, Country Club Bakery served as one of the sponsors of this year’s contest — along with Elite Cleaners and Carlo’s Italian Delights restaurant — and Mecca Petersen, whose mother’s boyfriend owns Country Club Bakery, did her duty as one of the judges.
Petersen took her role seriously and followed bake-off chairman Marcella Yaremchuk’s instruction to gauge the pepperoni rolls on four qualities: look, smell, taste and texture. As she approached Rosa Crites’ table, she picked up the pepperoni roll, took a whiff, set it down and made a mark on the form in her hand.
“That was a good look,” Crites said optimistically.
Crites entered using the recipe her mother, Olive, had taught her. In tribute, she also used her mother’s cloth to cover her portion of the table as well as a plate she had gotten from her.
“When she passed away, she left a lot of good recipes for me,” Crites said. “This is just her homemade bread recipe.”
Alas, Crites did not make it to the next round. In addition to Waitkus and Popovich, others who went to the second round included Katie Keefover, Stella Mitchell, Belinda Nichols and the duo of Brian Cumberledge and Stephanie Baker.
The idea was for the judges to then pick a winner from among that group, but after tabulating the results, Yaremchuk asked them to get third helpings of the pepperoni rolls baked by Keefover, Mitchell, Popovich and Waitkus.
“They’re one of my favorite foods, but I’ve eaten so many,” said festival queen Andrea Turner, a native of McMechen near Wheeling, where she grew up snacking on the delicacy.
Turner and the teen queen, Ally Brandfass of Morgantown, thought they would be OK for the contest because they had not eaten anything that day except for another festival favorite, Dippin’ Dots ice cream.
Luckily, after retabulating the results, the judges came up with the winners: first place and $300 to Waitkus; second place and $200 to Popovich; and third place and $100 to Keefover. The results meant that the judges could quit sampling pepperoni rolls for the time being.
“I did have a few too many today,” Brandfass said. “It might be a while before I have another one.”