My hometown of Philadelphia is known for several iconic foodstuffs. Unfortunately, many of them are gross — chiefly the cheesesteak, which might strike you as heretical. Our peculiar cold, wet and leaden soft pretzels are another unfortunate culinary calling card, and don’t get me started on scrapple: Look it up if you must, but it’s exactly what the word implies, and some people really love it.
We do have one regional specialty that should rightfully be better known. On the menu at most pizza shops and Italian bakeries around greater Philadelphia, it’s not a secret. But when I’ve mentioned it over the years to those who aren’t from around here, they are sometimes unfamiliar with my favorite quintessentially Philly food: stromboli.
A close relative of pizza, stromboli is made, essentially, by rolling up an unbaked pizza like a log, tucking in the ends as you go. The finished product comes out of the oven burnished and loaflike. After a few minutes’ rest, it’s ready to be cut into thick slices and served, the perfect party bite. Paired with a salad or pile of roasted vegetables, it’s a fun Friday kind of dinner.
Its spiral structure invites creativity with your filling ingredients. I grew up eating cheesesteak strombolis, broccoli-cheddar strombolis, even strombolis stuffed with mac and cheese. But my favorite strombolis honor South Philly traditions by sticking to cured meat and mozzarella cheese, the fat rendering and filtering through the dough layers, making the exterior bottom bits crunchy while the innermost twirl of meat and dough stays chewy. Some also include a thin layer of tomato sauce, while others omit it, or serve it on the side as a dip.
As with many traditional recipes that have been cooked more in homes than in restaurants, the stromboli’s exact origin is hard to pin down. Romano’s Pizzeria & Italian Restaurant, located just outside Philadelphia in Delaware County, is often credited as the originator of this particular stuffed bread.
Joseph Baldino, the James Beard award-nominated chef who operates the deeply Italian American Palizzi Social Club in South Philly, has offered stromboli on the club’s menu since he took over the 100-year-old operation from his uncle in 2017.
“I think stromboli is an American version of something from Southern Italy. Each region has its own variation of a stuffed dough. It’s named after the island of Stromboli, which is off the coast of Sicily,” Baldino says. At Palizzi, it evokes the same nostalgic feelings for many diners as it does for Baldino. “The smell of it baking brings back my childhood memories.”
Baldino’s mother made it weekly, typically on Friday or Saturday, when she didn’t want to make an elaborate meal. This says something about the Baldino family’s idea of elaborate cooking. My mother made it, too, but once in a while as a kitchen project, to have something fun, homemade and special.
If you make the dough as Baldino suggests, from scratch, you will need to plan ahead and spend the better part of an afternoon babying it. Of course, you can take the shortcut of starting with a couple of dough balls from the supermarket or a pizzeria.
Baldino likes to start with something called a biga — a mixture of a little yeast, sugar, flour and water made a day in advance and fermented overnight. This technique gives you a more complex flavor and a lighter texture than quicker methods. That said, you can use whatever pizza dough recipe you like and get good results. Stromboli is flexible. Variations make it your own. “Every Italian family in South Philly does it their own way,” says Baldino, who grew up in the neighborhood.
I’m not going to pretend making the dough from scratch and rolling out and assembling four strombolis isn’t work. It is. When I was talking with Baldino about the recipe he shared, I mentioned I planned to cut it in half so it would yield two strombolis instead of four. He urged me not to do so.
“After they’ve cooled, wrap them in plastic and freeze them. They reheat perfectly, and then you have dinner another time. Or you can have people over and impress your friends without a lot of last-minute work,” says Baldino. Of course, he was right. On more than one hectic day, I was grateful to have something homemade and delicious on hand, saving me from takeout or cereal for dinner.
Once I had Baldino’s restaurant recipe adapted for my home kitchen, I considered different ways to fill it. I realized my favorite strombolis weren’t the overstuffed, zany ones from the delis of my childhood. They are the restrained, just-enough-filling kind that show off the freshly baked bread. So I modeled my vegan take on Baldino’s classic.
He warned me off using small pepperoni in favor of three-inch-wide slices that would roll up better and not fall out. So I applied this same thinking to vegetables and filled my vegan version with thin, long slices of eggplant that were well seasoned, brushed with olive oil and then roasted. In place of the traditional mozzarella, I tried both a homemade tofu ricotta and vegan cheese slices. Both work nicely. What I kept from the meaty version is the flavorful garlic and herb oil that is the signature flavor of the Palizzi Social Club stromboli.
The bad news is, most people will never get to enjoy Baldino’s strombolis there. The restaurant is open to its members only, and new membership applications haven’t been accepted in a while. The good news is, wherever you live, you can make your own stromboli. It’s a way to get a taste of this South Philly tradition, no membership required.
Manning is a food writer and cookbook author.
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