Individuals of Italian extraction constitute one of the most important ethnic groups in West Virginia. These Italian-Americans date their connection with the state to ancestors who were recruited during the early years of the 20th century to work in West Virginia’s rapidly developing industrial economy. With more than 17,000 Italian immigrants in the state by 1910, they made up 30 percent of West Virginia’s foreign-born population. In fact, so many Italians had entered the state that for over a decade before the First World War, the Italian government maintained a consular office in northern West Virginia.
The majority of the Italian population were located in the northern part of the state, with Marion County leading the way, followed by Harrison, Tucker, Randolph, Preston and Monongalia. Significant clusters of Italians were also drawn to southern West Virginia. McDowell County, with 2,300, could boast the most Italian immigrants in the state in 1910, although the Fayette County communities of Boomer, Harewood, Longacre and Smithers constituted the greatest single concentration of Italians in the state. While immigrants were attracted to West Virginia from all over the Italian peninsula, the majority came from the southern regions of Campania, Calabria and Sicily.
The great majority of Italian immigrants were employed in the coal industry as pick-and-shovel miners. West Virginia mines were among the most mechanized in the US and miners born in America generally operated the new machines. They usually earned better pay than their foreign born counterparts, who were left with the hand tool work. Despite this disparity, West Virginia Italians were able to significantly improve their financial position. In part, the Italians achieved economic progress and acceptance by their work ethic. The records for coal production by hand tools are all apparently held by Italians. For instance, in 1924, Carmine Pellegrino of Rosemont mined 66 tons of coal in one 24-hour period and earned the nickname ‘‘sixty-six’’. Eleven years later, Dominic Pesca of Boomer mined by hand 48 tons of coal in one day and 52 tons the next at the Union Carbide mines at nearby Alloy. Italian miners in West Virginia also improved their economic position by self-sacrifice and frugality. Raising livestock and tending gardens kept down expenses and helped them save a great deal of their earnings. The U.S. Department of Labor noted that such Italian miners sent more money back to their home country than any other comparable group of immigrants.
Although large numbers were involved in digging coal, West Virginia’s Italians were an occupationally diverse group. Even in the coal camps, they often held a variety of jobs such as teamsters, carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers, stonemasons or general laborers. In many areas, Italians were a vital part of the business community. The occupational diversity of Italians was especially notable in the northern part of the state where urban industrial settings were more common. For instance, historian William Klaus has written that Italians in Marion County were not just miners, but also worked in glass and other manufacturing establishments, on railroads, in skilled trades, on farms and in their own small businesses.
Historians have explored the significance of the high concentration of Italians in the work force of the Mountain State. As a result, we know they came mostly as an indirect result of wanting to work in the West Virginia coal industry. What emerges from this literature is that these immigrants were desperately poor individuals fleeing their old world peasant communities for a chance at a better life in America. Confused and unable to speak English, they were met at ports of entry by employment agents or representatives of private firms and whisked away to the mountains, where they had little idea of where they were or what they were going to do.
Dispersed without input to coal, lumber, transportation and construction companies, they were seemingly powerless to determine their own destiny. However, despite this background, they earned respect for their hard work and were seen as assimilating rather easily into the mountain culture. The purpose of this historical study was to take a first step at understanding the Italian experience in West Virginia. By focusing on the group of Italians who were drawn to Fayette County, the research attempted to move beyond the impact in which West Virginia’s culture and institutions had on such immigrants. Rather, the research aimed to determine how the Italians influenced the institutions and values of the southern West Virginia coal workers, in what was emerging as a critical period in the state’s mining history.
A seam of coal, measuring between five and six feet thick, ran through the hills above the town of Boomer in Fayette County. This coal was first developed in 1896 by West Virginia merchant, William Masters. Boomer Coal and Coke operation became possible because of the extension of the Kanawha and Michigan Railroad. Completion of the K and M also aided W. R. Johnson in opening a mine in Harewood and Samuel Dixon in Longacre. By the spring of 1903, the Boomer Coal and Coke operations was purchased by Hocking Valley of Ohio. Since Boomer’s three mines were among the most productive in the district, their acquisition placed the Hocking Valley Corporation on the verge of a significant expansion in their capacity to produce coal.
Shortly after, the Boomer Coal and Coke Company began a vigorous campaign of attracting Italian immigrants as part of its workforce. The hostile labor relations atmosphere created by the Coal Strike of 1902 in West Virginia gave the recruitment of Italians and other foreign labor a sense of urgency. The work stoppage of West Virginia’s miners in the great Coal Strike of 1902 is historically pictured as a sympathy strike to support the anthracite miners in eastern Pennsylvania. However, in southern West Virginia the strike was basically about local issues. During this situation, the Boomer Coal and Coke Company did everything it could to keep the union out and keep its production going full strength. Among other things, it forbade meetings on its property and obtained restraining orders, forbidding any attempt at interference with the employment relationship at any of its operations.
It became clear that Boomer Coal and Coke and the other Hocking properties decided that their expanding enterprises would depend essentially on immigrant labor, but it is not clear why these coal operations placed particular emphasis on recruiting Italians. It may have been as simple, as the fact, that there were so many of them available. On the other hand, the preference of Boomer Coal and the other Hocking operations for southern Italians may have had another source. It was well known that the vast majority of southern Italian immigrants were agricultural workers. However, anyone who conducted interviews with the Italians in the southern West Virginia coal fields, learned that a substantial number were not new to mining work. For example, Luigi Curatolo migrated from a Sicilian community where he and his brothers, Salvatore and Guiseppe, had entered the sulfur mines at the age of eight. These brothers, as had their father before them, expected to spend the rest of their lives in such mines. However, at the turn of the century, the ancient mines of Sicily were no longer profitable and eventual emigration to a place like West Virginia was an opportunity to do something that had a familiar feel to it.
Whatever the reasons may have been for recruiting them, a steadily increasing stream of Italian immigrants flooded onto the properties of Boomer Coal and Coke and its sister companies. As more and more Italians made the trip to Boomer, they soon filled up the clusters of little houses the company built and the area became know as “little Italy.” In less than a decade there were over a thousand Italians in Boomer, making it the largest concentration of Italians relative to total population of any city in the state.
If Boomer Coal and Coke Company and the other Hocking Valley interests recruited so heavily among the Italians in the hope that these immigrants would constitute a more docile, controllable work force than their native West Virginia employees, who had caused so much trouble during the 1902 strike, they would soon be disillusioned. They would learn that Italians could respond aggressively and with remarkable solidarity to injustice. For example, in July, 1905, the foreman of a construction crew, working on a railroad grading crew in Fayette County, reprimanded an Italian laborer by knocking him down an embankment. The foreman’s actions incensed many of the Italian crew, who threw down their tools and grabbed rocks to throw at the foreman. The Italians were soon joined by workmen from other nearby railroad construction crews. A battle between the Italians and company men soon broke out. The Italians and their allies were winning until William Nelson Page, the owner of the area’s coal properties, got word of the trouble and sent law enforcement officers to break up the melee and arrest eleven of the instigators.
While many Italian immigrants eventually left West Virginia, many others stayed and made a long lasting impact on the state and its institutions. Italian union members and organizers, such as Tony Stafford and Armando Folio, helped to make the Mountain State one of the most union-oriented states in the nation. West Virginia Catholicism and its ancillary institutions were strengthened considerably by the infusion of Italian parishioners. The continuing influence of Italians in West Virginia was symbolized by the growth of the yearly Italian festivals held in the state at Clarksburg and Wheeling in the north and Bluefield and Princeton in the southern part of the state. As late as 1970, Italians with at least one parent born in Italy constituted West Virginia’s second-largest ethnic group. By the third generation, Italians had moved into the center of political life in many parts of the state. In 2005, Joe Manchin became West Virginia’s first governor of Italian descent. His uncle, A. James Manchin, secretary of state and treasurer, had preceded him as one of the state’s most popular politicians.
The first West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival was first held in downtown Clarksburg in 1979. The idea was proposed by the librarian at the Clarksburg Harrison Public Library and a board of directors was formed, consisting mostly of prominent citizens of Italian descent. A parade, street concerts, authentic Italian food, cultural events (including art shows and opera), crafts, sports (bocce, morra and golf) and the crowning of a festival queen were all part of the first Italian Heritage Festival and continued in later festivals.The West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival is held each Labor Day weekend beginning on Friday and concluding on Sunday.
The Food of West Virginia Italians
The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll
As the story goes… Italian miners, like most miners, needed something non-perishable and easily portable to pack into their lunch pails (or pants pockets) as they often worked very long hours, so lunch frequently consisted of a piece of bread and a couple of pieces of cured meat. It wasn’t long before an entrepreneurial miner in Fairmont, W.V., Frank Agiro, decided to experiment with baking a couple of bits of salumi inside a yeast roll and, thus, the pepperoni roll was born. Not soon after, Agiro put down his pick ax and opened the now famous Country Club Bakery, which is still in operation today.
Like its cousin, the pizza, a pepperoni roll varies greatly in taste and quality and ranges from: flour-dusted, brownie-size rolls stuffed with sliced pepperoni and sold by the dozen in bread bags at gas stations; to individually wrapped rolls as big as an overstuffed burrito with pepperoni sticks in the middle sold at Mountaineer Field, home of West Virginia University’s football team; to heated rolls, split open and topped with cheese and tomato sauce, such as those served at Colosessano’s in Fairmont.
Sticks versus slices are probably the biggest dividers among bakers–sticks are definitively the purist’s take. You’ll also find some hackles raised over the matter of cheese. To add or not!
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons active dry yeast (1 packet)
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 large egg
- One 6-ounce stick pepperoni, cut into 4 logs and each split in half lengthwise
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups shredded whole milk mozzarella
In a small saucepan, gently heat the milk and butter until the butter is melted. The milk should be just a little hotter than warm, between 100 and 115 degrees F, but not over 115 degrees F. Remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk in the sugar, salt and yeast. Let the mixture sit until the yeast is activated and foam covers the top, 5 to 8 minutes.
Add the flour to a large bowl and make a well in the center. Crack the egg into the middle and pour in the yeast liquid. Make the dough by mixing all ingredients together with a rubber spatula. Make sure all ingredients are incorporated; the dough will be sticky and loose. Leave the dough in the center of the bowl when it is fully incorporated.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2 hours. Remove the plastic and gently re-knead the dough while still in the bowl. Form into a ball, as best you can, and cover with plastic wrap. This time allow to rest in a warm place for 1 hour.
After the second rise, remove the dough to a very generously floured surface, kneading to bring together. Cut the dough into 8 pieces, about 3 1/2 ounces each. Gently form each piece of dough into balls, incorporating more flour as needed. Use your hands to flatten each ball to a 4 1/2-inch circle. Brush a piece of pepperoni with oil and place in the center of the circle, along with 2 tablespoons shredded mozzarella. Fold the dough over the pepperoni, like a burrito, and place on a parchment-covered baking sheet seam side down.
Repeat with the remaining pepperoni and cheese. As you place each pepperoni roll on the sheet tray, leave at least 1 inch around each roll to allow for a third rise (therefore you will need 2 baking sheets). Cover the rolls loosely with plastic wrap and place in a warm place for 30 minutes. The rolls will puff up just a bit.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Brush the tops of the rolls with the remaining oil and bake in the oven 30 to 35 minutes. The rolls will have a rich golden color and crispy crust.
Note: This dough is very wet dough. Use a rubber spatula when incorporating flour into the dough. Make sure to always flour your hands and the surface you are working on when working with the dough.
The dish is very popular among Italians in North Central West Virginia and a great way to use up fresh summer vegetables. Supposedly, the word “tiella” (like so many Italian recipes) means pan. A vegetarian version can also be made by omitting the meat.
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 pound Italian sausage
- 1 large can tomato sauce (about 3 cups)
- 1/4 cup water
- 5 parboiled potatoes, peeled and sliced (if using red potatoes, leave the skin on)
- 1 large onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 3 medium zucchini, sliced same size as the potatoes
- 2 cups bread crumbs
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 3 tablespoons fresh basil and parsley chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Olive oil
Brown the meat in a skillet. Pour tomato sauce and water over meat mixture and let simmer about 15-20 min. In another pan saute the onions and garlic in olive oil and set aside. In a separate bowl combine the fresh bread crumbs with the grated cheese, parsley, basil, salt and ground black pepper.
In a round deep dish pizza pan or casserole cover the bottom of the pan with some of the meat sauce and then add a layer of potatoes, zucchini and onions. Top with some of the bread crumb mixture. Just like making lasagna, repeat with another layer, pour any remaining sauce over the top and sprinkle the top with the remaining bread crumb mixture. Drizzle with olive oil and bake at 350 degrees F. for 45 minutes.
Zuppe di Pesce Venetian
Carlotta Yonkers remembers the long hours her mother, Sylvia Potesta, spent in the family’s East End kitchen. Potesta’s maternal grandparents, who came from Calabria, in the southern coastal region of Italy, settled first in Boomer, where most of the men became miners. Her mother was born in Charleston, WV. Her father, who was born in Bruzzi (Italy) preferred city life and moved to Charleston where he became a tailor and worked for years at the Diamond department store. Potesta remembers that her father ordered seafood from New York City, which was shipped to them in a large barrel, for the family’s Christmas Eve dinner because no Charleston grocer carried the required ingredients.
Carlotta Yonkers’ Recipe
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 head garlic, chopped
- 3 medium yellow onions, chopped
- 3 carrots, peeled and diced
- 3 cups cleaned and chopped leeks
- 4 cups chopped tomato
- 1 bunch parsley
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 2 quarts cold water
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed
- 8 black peppercorns
- 2 cups chopped fresh fennel tops
- Any combination of: whole shrimp, clams in their shells, mussels, crab pieces in the shell, scallops, white fish of any kind, fresh, cut into 2-inch chunks
Place butter, olive oil, garlic, onions, carrots, leeks and tomato in a 12-quart heavy stockpot and cook over medium heat, stirring, until things begin to brown a bit, about 15 minutes.
Add parsley, wine, stock, water, fennel seed, peppercorns and fennel tops to the pot and bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 1 hour. Drain the stock from the kettle and discard all the ingredients, returning the stock to the pot.
Bring the stock to a boil when ready to serve and add any or all of the seafood, using any amount desired. Start with the heavy-shelled seafood and then add scallops and fish last. Simmer until the clams and mussels are open, the shrimp pink and all is tender, but not overcooked, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Ladle into bowls and serve with crusty toasted bread.
Oliverio Family Tradition
In 1932, in her small kitchen at the back of her retail store in Clarksburg, WV, Antoinette “Ma” Oliverio perfected her recipe for peppers in Italian sauce. Her son, Frank, took her recipe out of the kitchen and into the business world.
In 1972, he began canning peppers under the Oliverio label. Today, his son Mark Oliverio and daughter Deanna Mason continue running the business that was a labor of love for their father. Three generations later, the Oliverio family have combined their love of good food with their recipe for success. In sharing their fathers dream, they are also continuing the legacy of Antoinette, whom they credit with instilling respect for heritage and love of family. Oliverio products are made from a family recipe using only the finest ingredients. Today, the peppers are used in restaurants and line store shelves throughout the East Coast.
- 2 lbs lean ground beef or turkey
- 2 whole eggs
- 1/4 cup Italian bread crumbs
- 1 16 oz jar Oliverio Peppers and Sauce (hot or sweet)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
In a large mixing bowl add ground beef and all ingredients except 1/4 of the peppers with sauce and cheese. Mix together. Place in a loaf pan and press gently to relieve any air pockets.
Pour remaining peppers and sauce on top of the ground beef mixture. Sprinkle with mozzarella.
Cover baking pan with foil (greased on the side facing the meatloaf) and place in the oven for 1 1/2 hours or until the meatloaf reaches an internal temperature of 170 degrees.
Remove the meatloaf from the pan and drain any grease, let stand for 10 minutes. Slice and serve. Makes 6 servings.
Italian Cream Cake
Patricia Haddy bakes lots of Italian Cream Cakes, her most popular cake. She bakes for friends, family and others who request her cakes after they taste them. “The Italian Cream Cake took off like wildfire when I started making it,” she said.
When a friend requested she bring the cake to a reception years ago at the Marriott, the chef tasted it and offered her a job. She turned him down, but sold her cakes to him for years as his job took him to local country clubs and restaurants. She found the Italian Cream Cake she makes faithfully from a local source, “Seasons and Celebrations” by former West Virginia Gazette food contributor Rosalie Gaziano.
Yield: 3 9-inch round cakes
- 1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine
- 2 cups sugar
- 5 egg yolks
- 2 cups sifted flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 small can coconut
- 1 cup chopped pecans
- 5 egg whites, beaten
Cream butter and sugar well. Add egg yolks, one at a time.
Sift flour and soda together; add alternately with buttermilk to creamed mixture. Add vanilla, coconut and pecans.
Fold in beaten egg whites.
Pour into three greased 9-inch cake pans. Bake 40 minutes at 350 degrees F.
Frosting for Italian Cream Cake
- 1 8-ounce package cream cheese
- 1/2 cup butter or margarine (1 stick)
- 1 pound confectioner’s sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/2 cup chopped nuts
Cream together cream cheese and butter or margarine. Add sugar and vanilla, beating until smooth.
Spread between layers and on top of the cake. If frosting is stiff, add a little milk.
Sprinkle nuts on top of the cake.
- Coal Miner’s Memorial and Heritage Park, Quinwood, West Virginia (rutheh.com)
- Baltimore’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Western Pennsylvania’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Philadelphia’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Chicago’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Cleveland’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- New England’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Italian American Neighborhoods – Boston (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Ybor City – Florida’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Little Italy – Manhattan (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- The “Little Italies” of Michigan (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- The Hill” St. Louis’ Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)