There’s Italian and then there’s Italian American and where I’m from, sometimes the line is a bit of a blur. But I think everyone can agree on the following: Sophia Loren (bites palm) is quintessentially Italian while Vinny from the Jersey Shore on the other hand is definitely Italian American. Cavatelli is a delicious Italian pasta whereas gavadeel is what a crew of 2nd generation "It Talian" guys order in a restaurant in Nutley, New Jersey. Pizza and calzones are foods brought to the US from the “motherland” but a stromboli was actually born in the United States. I bet you weren’t expecting that one, were you? I wasn't and apparently the pepperoni, ham and provolone cheese wrapped in pizza dough that my mom makes every year for Christmas Eve, isn't really a stromboli either. At least not an original one.
Things Aren't Always What They Seem
Imagine waking up one morning to find out the sky was actually red. I mean it still looked blue but the color you thought was blue, was really red and had been all your life, you just didn’t know it. You following me? Okay maybe that’s a little dramatic but in all my years of making and eating stromboli, I never had one the way it was actually invented. And I had no idea!
Let me explain
Nazzareno (Nat) Romano, a stone mason by trade, immigrated to America from Italy and started a brand-new culinary career selling tomato pies from a wagon in South Philly. By 1944, he opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant a few miles down the street, then known as the Essington Pizzeria but now goes by Romano Stromboli (now in its 3rd Generation). By 1949, he started messing around using leftover cold cuts and Italian bread. At the time he didn't have a name for what would go on to become the original stromboli sandwich, an Italian bread dough stuffed with cotechino salami, ham, sweet peppers and get this, American cheese. Baked with a crunchy outside, a luscious melted inside and a little bite from the cotechino, this is incredibly delicious. But is it really a stromboli?
If the guy who invented the stromboli, called it a stromboli sandwich, who am I to say it's not. Unlike every stromboli I've ever had that uses stretched out pizza dough, Romano's makes their own Italian bread, a process which involves 4 proofing stages and lasts all day. As you can see to the left, the first stromboli is girthy and has all the attributes of a hoagie without the lettuce, tomato and onion. And the toasty bread and warm inside really makes it a forefather of those toasted sub chains like Quiznos.
Nat, with the help of one of his customers, called the new food stromboli, after the popular movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini- the fact that the actors were involved in a scandalous off screen love affair had the word stromboli plastered on every daily tabloid in the country.
The combination of a "trendy name", a delicious food and the proximity to Philadelphia Airport made the stromboli go viral as transient flight attendants would take the food with them to their next stop. Within months, the stromboli was a foodigenous in practically every state, with pizzerias taking liberties with the ingredients. American cheese was often substituted for mozzarella or provolone cheese, and the lunch meats vary. I've seen some with onions and peppers, definitely pepperoni and almost all of them wrapped in pizza dough, making these variations of stromboli akin to a calzone (sans the ricotta). In the Midwest, specifically in Evansville Indiana, Pizza King lays claim to another "original stromboli" that's like nothing you've ever seen- but I'll save that one for its own story.
If you are like me and grew up with a pizza dough stromboli, give this OG a shot and taste the difference. It's a few miles out of South Philly, just over the oddly steep George C Platt Bridge and right off Interstate 95. If you can't make it in person, Romano's ships nationwide. Try one of their 20 variations including a meatball or cheesesteak and then tell me what's up.
I'm not going to stop calling my stromboli, a stromboli because of all of these newfound facts, but going forward I will give props to Romano's and Nazzareno by calling it the Original. It's really, really effin good, even with American Cheese!