Updated: Mar 13, 2021
I recently binge watched 201 episodes of The Office. Roughly four thousand, four hundred and twenty-two minutes of silliness set mostly in Scranton, Pennsylvania and not once did I witness Dwight, Jim or Michael eat a “cut” of pagash. Despite how it sounds, Pagash is a seasonal variety of pizza, not a sound effect spelled out every time Adam West slugged a bad guy on the 1960’s Batman series. BAM POW THUD
Pagash is a like a unicorn in the world of indigenous foods, little known outside of the Coal Region and Back Mountain areas of Northeastern Pennsylvania (locally stylized as NEPA) and available for a limited time only. Think of if it as the Shamrock Shake of potato pizza. Also referred to as a pierogi pizza because of its Slavic origins, this unique spin on America’s favorite takeout is made of varying combinations of mashed potatoes, sauteed onions and cheese, lots of cheese baked on pizza dough. Because of its absence of meat, pagash has become a popular meal with the area's Catholic population and is sold only during the 40-day observance of Lent.
BLOG TIP: To make this a really fun read, start over and take a shot every time you read the word pagash, you might get tipsy!
Origins of the Famous Lenten Potato Pizza
The recipe for pagash came to America along with the nearly 500,000 Slavics that immigrated to the country between 1880 and 1920, with half of them settling in Pennsylvania. And while homemade versions of the food have been consumed in NEPA households and served in the lunch pails of coal miners for decades, one pizzeria stands by their claim that they invented potato pizza. Originally from Old Forge, PA the self-proclaimed “Pizza Capital of the World”, Ferri’s Pizza has been around since 1936 when founder Gaetano Ferri split his days working the coal mine in the morning and selling pizza in the afternoon. Now, situated in the borough of Moscow, the third generation pizzeria proudly celebrates their grandfather’s past with a replica of a coal mine and small museum inside their restaurant. They continue to produce top notch Old Forge style pizza. Ordering Tip: Old Forge pizza is sold in cuts, not slices and whole pies are ordered as trays.
According to Ferri’s, in 1990 a long-time customer who happened to be Irish, brought a pot of her mashed potatoes to the pizzeria and asked for it to be added to her order. They happily obliged and for years continued to make her the mashed potato pizza. Ferri's soon realized that they had something special, tweaked her recipe, and started to sell the special pizza exclusively during Lent. They created a smooth and creamy potato topping, (think au gratin) mixed with green onion, butter and a combination of yellow cheddar and what I assumed to be white American (they refused to share the family secret) that left me with a yearning for the tepid yolk of a sunny side up egg. I am not sure if anyone else feels the same way, but this pizza screams breakfast.
Where to find that good YUM YUM!
While Ferri’s may claim to be the originator of Lenten potato pizza, pagash has been around for generations. Pagash sold in pizza form however is a relatively new foodigenous and has been growing in popularity over the past decade. At the time of this post, there are over 120 pizzerias and bakeries making their own unique take on it. Like a snowflake, no two pagash are the same. Depending on where you go, pagash can be made round, square or rectangular. Some places make a stuffed version, others make a calzone type pagash. While some look like a traditional white pizza, most are likley to be made Old Forge style or the even more obscure Pan Fried Sicilian style (Togoz Pizza above), aptly named for the highly oiled pan it bakes in. The majority of pagash will have onion but you can request to have yours made without. But don't just take my word, check out Jim Mirabelli and his impressive NEPA Pizza Review website for the most comprehensive review of pagash you will ever find and also get acquainted with two of America’s lesser known and underappreciated pizza styles.
ROAD TRIP INFO- The Coal Region of Pennsylvania is roughly two hours by car from Philly and New York City and approx four and a half hours from Pittsburgh.