The Mythical Origins of the Pepperoni Ball
By: Jonathan Burdick
To outsiders, they might appear to be little more than dough and pepperoni. For those who grew up in the Erie region though, the pepperoni ball represents much more than that. As the Erie Bayhawks have recognized in their rebranding as the Erie Pepperoni Balls for an evening—an event to benefit the United Way of Erie County’s Imagination Library—the pepperoni ball is a staple of Erie’s cultural identity.
These savory baseball-sized balls of homemade dough, which encase fresh slices of pepperoni, are legendary in the Erie area. In local school lunchrooms, kids line up on pepperoni ball day to—much to the disgust of pepperoni ball purists—smother their pep balls in marinara, ranch, and even hot sauce.
What even makes an authentic pepperoni ball though? Not every Erie resident agrees. Should it be fried or baked? Fluffy or crisp? Stuffed with cheese or without? Served with condiments or enjoyed plain? Do they need to have those little ridges from the racks to be legitimate?
“I like them baked and cheese is just an option,” Charles Brown, local hip hop artist, music producer, and writer, said. “I never thought to dip them in anything because to me, they’re fulfilling alone. Baked pepperoni balls with a glass of root beer does me justice,” he added.
For many, there is a sense of nostalgia associated with eating pepperoni balls.
“For better or worse,” Nick Warren, managing editor of the Erie Reader said, “the pepperoni ball that takes me back, my quintessential favorite, are the ones I used to get at concession stands for high school football games.” That’s a plain ball: no cheese, no dip, no nonsense.
“Baked, no cheese, just as it is—no dip needed,” Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper agreed.
Whatever way one decides to eat them, most will agree: they are delicious—and often linked with childhood memories. Sporting events. Lunchrooms. Afternoon snacks. A neighborhood bakery. Home.
The exact origins of the pepperoni ball remain steeped in local mythology. Some have described them as a cousin to the pepperoni roll, which was popularized by West Virginian coal miners during the 1930s before spreading throughout Appalachia.
However, the more one asks questions about the pepperoni ball in Erie, the more one recognizes two constants: Little Italy and fish balls. Decades ago, families and bakeries in Erie’s Little Italy were known for their fish balls—balls of fried or baked dough wrapped around scraps of fish… sometimes even anchovies.
At some point, those scraps of fish were replaced with the simpler deli meat of pepperoni—an easy-to-make and even easier-to-eat snack that packed some serious calories. It was perfect for Erie’s working class.
“I’m glad they didn’t settle on bologna,” one local baker joked. “Bologna balls… that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
Many small local Italian mom and pop places began making and selling their own version of the pepperoni ball. Just a few of the establishments often mentioned by locals—some still around, some not—include the International Bakery (the official pepperoni ball of the Erie Bayhawks), Stanganelli’s, Arnone’s, Luigi’s, Pio’s, Barbato’s, Valerio’s, Bongiovanni’s, and Cassano’s. The list could go on and on.
“My mom has been eating pepperoni balls as long as she can remember,” one woman whose family goes back generations in Little Italy said—but that was the extent of her pep ball knowledge. They’ve just always been here, it seems.
Gordie Art Evans, owner of Art’s Bakery on West Ridge Road, believes his bakery started making pepperoni balls sometime in the late-1960s.
“We would put a slice or two of pepperoni in the scraps of dough and toss them in the deep fryer,” Evans said. “Crisp and hot on the outside, soft and savory on the inside.”
Yet, around twenty-five years ago, he altered how he made them. “I started using a richer [homemade] dough and baking them,” he explained. “I liked them better, especially because when they cooled, they didn’t have the greasy taste. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. We only bake them now and sell quite a few.”
Pepperoni balls continue to be a local favorite—however one chooses to consume them. The beauty, perhaps, is in how versatile they are, and how, if one chooses, it is simple enough to make at home.
“I’ve never eaten a pepperoni ball I didn’t like,” newly inaugurated Erie Mayor Joe Schember said, although he admitted that he preferred them baked. “Pepperoni balls are a great contribution we have made to Italian-American cuisine,” he added. “We are proud to claim them as uniquely Erie. They are yet another example of how our diversity makes us stronger.”
Stronger and with more delicious local cuisine—because frankly, the pepperoni ball is another reason you can’t beat living in Erie, Pennsylvania.