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Arts & Culture / Inside Appalachia
The Inside Appalachia Folkways Project expands the reporting of the Inside Appalachia team to include more stories from West Virginia as well as expand coverage in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Ohio.

Wheeling Is Crazy For Cold Cheese Pizza. But Which Restaurant Serves The Best Slice?

dicarlo's pizza
Zack Harold
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Primo DiCarlo single-handedly, accidentally, created a brand new kind of pizza: cold cheese on a hot crust. The dish would eventually take the region by storm and come to be known as Ohio Valley Pizza or Wheeling Pizza. But more often than not, it is still called “DiCarlo’s pizza.”

If you need some reading material while waiting for lunch at DiCarlo’s Famous Pizza in downtown Wheeling, West Virginia, check out the big plaque just left of the front door.

It tells the whole history of Ohio Valley Pizza, a regional cuisine with a story that begins just up the road in Steubenville, Ohio in the late 1800s. That’s when the DiCarlo family left their home in Sora, Italy to come to the United States. They opened a little grocery store to serve their fellow immigrants and the store soon became renowned for its Italian bread. It got so popular the family converted the whole business to a bakery, making bread as well as cakes, donuts and cookies.

Then came World War II. Primo DiCarlo found himself stationed in his ancestral homeland. It was there he discovered a delicacy called “pizza.”

He returned home determined to get into the pizza business. He borrowed cookie sheets from the bakery—and the family bread dough recipe—and started tinkering. But the DiCarlo’s ran into a problem. They didn’t have a pizza oven.

By the time the crust was as crispy as Primo liked, the cheese on top was burned. So he just added the cheese after it came out of the oven.

Primo single handedly, accidentally, created a brand new kind of pizza: cold cheese on a hot crust. The dish would eventually take the region by storm and come to be known as Ohio Valley Pizza or Wheeling Pizza. But more often than not, it is still called “DiCarlo’s pizza.”

DiCarlo's Pizza
Zack Harold
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
By the time the crust was as crispy as Primo liked, the cheese on top was burned. So he just added the cheese after it came out of the oven.

Primo opened his first store in Steubenville in 1945. He and little brother Galdo opened another in downtown Wheeling four years later.

The business has only expanded from there. There are DiCarlo’s franchises and imitators springing up all over Ohio and West Virginia. Their numbers seem to be increasing by the day. There’s even a location in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

The DiCarlo’s family hopes their cold cheese pizza will soon take its place in the pantheon of American pizza styles, alongside New York’s big floppy slices, Chicago’s deep dish and Detroit’s thick crusts.

But there’s a catch. According to locals, not all DiCarlo’s are selling the same pizza. There are subtle differences in the crust, the sauce and the cheese.

If Ohio Valley Pizza is about to go national — which is the real deal?

I decided to hit the road to find out. (You know, for journalism.)

I came to the downtown location at the suggestion of local journalist Jeremy Morris. He wrote a pretty extensive history of the Ohio Valley pizza phenomenon for the website Weelunk.

“I’d go grab a couple slices and watch the barges and look at the architecture on the island,” he said. “There’s no finer way to spend a lunch hour or an evening in Wheeling than some DiCarlo’s by the river.”

That’s exactly what I did, and my first bite was revelatory. The crust was way crispier than I expected. You could still see the individual shreds of cold cheese. It was salty and chewy, calling attention to itself in a way that melted cheese never does.

My pizza research was just beginning, though.

Another name that comes up quite often when you’re discussing Ohio Valley pizza is Patsy’s in Elm Grove. Wheeling native Patrick Yoho gave me the scoop.

“If you pull in here and wait for pizza, you’re going to be sitting here for 45 minutes. You call in and you get a number,” he said. “We’re number 74.”

Patsy’s used to be a DiCarlo’s. Galdo DiCarlo originally opened this shop before turning it over to employee Pasquale Vespa — “Patsy” for short.

Patsy's Pizza Elm Grove
Zack Harold
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Patsy’s Pizza used to be a DiCarlo’s. Galdo DiCarlo originally opened this shop before turning it over to employee Pasquale Vespa — “Patsy” for short.

The family did that sometimes. But these franchise agreements weren’t as heavy-handed as seen with national fast food chains today. Owners like Patsy had the freedom to make small tweaks where they saw fit.

“Patsy’s is different,” Yoho said. “The sauce is different. The cheese is crumbled instead of grated like long slices. The sauce is spicier, it’s got a green pepper kick to it. And the crust is airy thin most of the time.”

Molly Poffenbarger is originally from Charleston but moved up to Wheeling after college.

“It scared me to death as a transplant,” she said. “I was intimidated by the whole thing, because somebody was like, ‘this is what you have to do, and there’s no extra toppings.’ If you were to say ‘can I get black olives?’ they would blackball you.”

Yoho, in all his years eating at Patsy’s, could only point to one change to the pizza in recent memory.

“In the last 10 or 15 years, they’ve added pepper rings you can get on the side, in a bag,” he said.

There’s a reason so little changed.

“You don’t fix it if it's not broke,” said longtime Patsy’s employee Erica Mitchum. “As far as fresh pizza, we’re kinda toward number one. Because we don’t box it, we don’t prepare it until you get here. So it’s not like it sits on the oven.”

Yoho, a seasoned veteran, does have one suggestion to make the pizza taste even fresher. Patsy’s crumbled cheese melts faster than the shredded cheese at other locations, so he orders a plastic bag full of extra cheese. He sprinkles that on top immediately before eating, ensuring he gets a taste of cold cheese with every crunchy bite.

Patsy's Pizza Box
Zack Harold
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Pizza from Patsy's Pizza.

By the time I left Yoho and Poffenbarger, I’d eaten pizza for both lunch and dinner. But I still had one more stop on my tour — the DiCarlo’s in Wellsburg, about 20 miles north.

I came here at the suggestion of my friend Candace Nelson. You might know her as the author of “The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll Book.” She’s also a Wellsburg native and a die-hard fan of the DiCarlo’s there.

“Growing up, DiCarlo’s was a treat. There’s something about knowing that, on payday, you get to go to DiCarlo’s. And even if you have to wait for an hour, it was worth it,” she said. “Because you knew when you got home, you're going to have the best-tasting pizza you’re going to have until the next time you can afford this treat.”

When I arrived at the Wellsburg DiCarlo’s, I found Mark Vaughn working the ovens, just as he has for the last 20 years. He told me this was one of the most traditional DiCarlo’s, opened by Galdo himself back in the day before being taken over by owner Tim Morris.

“Same oven. Everything’s pretty much the same. Couple updates here and there, paint jobs and whatnot,” Vaughn said.

I’d eaten a slice of pizza for almost every hour I’d been awake. So this time, I only ordered one.

Mark suggested trying one with extra cheese and mushrooms.

I ate it in the customary way — standing in the parking lot, box on the trunk. It was crispy, cheesy and chewy. The mushrooms lended some extra flavor and texture. It was delicious — just like all the other pizza I’d had that day.

That’s no cop out. Each of the three locations I visited have their subtle differences. But I can’t say one is better than the others.

Let’s say Ohio Valley pizza does go national. When they open the first DiCarlo’s in Sioux Falls or Pensacola, pizza lovers are going to rave over the crispy crust, the tangy tomato sauce and the cold cheese. They won’t know whether they got the downtown version, the Elm Grove version or the Wellsburg version.

Maybe a few of them will be inspired to trace this pizza back to its source. That’s when they’ll discover all that nuance the people of the Ohio Valley — the true connoisseurs — have been debating for decades.

Everybody else? They’re just going to be happy they got a darn good pizza.

——

This story originally aired in the Aug. 19, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, which is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation.

Subscribe to Inside Appalachia to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.

Zack Harold of Ashford, West Virginia, is a southern West Virginia native, the grandson of two coal miners, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, a former staff writer with the Charleston Daily Mail, and former managing editor of WV Living and Wonderful West Virginia magazines. He currently works with the WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition Program. He enjoys playing music with his band The Sycomores.

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