If you need a read while waiting for lunch at DiCarlo’s Famous Pizza in downtown Wheeling, West Virginia, check out the large plaque just to the left of the front door.
It tells the whole story of Ohio Valley Pizza, a regional kitchen whose history begins right in Steubenville, Ohio in the late 1800s. That’s when the DiCarlo family left their home of Sora, in Italy, to come to the United States. They opened a small grocery store to serve their fellow immigrants, and the store quickly became famous for its Italian bread. It became so popular that the family converted the entire business into a bakery, making bread as well as cakes, donuts and cookies.
Then came the Second World War. Primo DiCarlo found himself stationed in his ancestral homeland. It was there that 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 DiCarlos ran into a problem. They didn’t have a pizza oven.
By the time the crust was as crispy as Primo liked it, the cheese on top was burnt. So he just added the cheese after it came out of the oven.
Primo single-handedly accidentally created a whole new kind of pizza: cold cheese on a hot crust. The dish would eventually take the region by storm and become known as Ohio Valley Pizza or Wheeling Pizza. But more often than not, it’s still called “DiCarlo’s pizza.”
Primo opened his first store in Steubenville in 1945. He and his little brother Galdo opened another in downtown Wheeling four years later.
The business only expanded from there. There are franchises and DiCarlo impersonators popping up all over Ohio and West Virginia. Their number seems to be increasing day by day. There’s even a location in Myrtle Beach, SC.
The DiCarlo family hopes their cold cheese pizza will soon take its place in the pantheon of American pizza styles, alongside the big floppy slices of New York, the deep dish of Chicago and the thick crusts of Detroit.
But there is a catch. According to locals, not all DiCarlos sell the same pizza. There are subtle differences in the crust, sauce and cheese.
If Ohio Valley Pizza is about to go national – what’s the real deal?
I decided to hit the road to find out. (You know, for journalism.)
Came downtown at the suggestion of local journalist Jeremy Morris. He wrote a fairly detailed history of the pizza phenomenon in the Ohio Valley for the Weelunk website.
“I would go and have a few slices and look at the houseboats and look at the architecture on the island,” he said. “There’s no better way to spend an hour of lunch or an evening in Wheeling than some DiCarlos by the river.”
I did just that, and my first bite was eye-opening. The crust was way crispier than I expected. You could still see the individual shreds of cold cheese. It was salty and chewy, drawing attention to itself in a way that melted cheese never does.
My pizza research was just beginning.
Another name that comes up quite often when you talk about pizza in the Ohio Valley is Patsy’s in Elm Grove. Wheeling native Patrick Yoho gave me the inside scoop.
“If you get here and wait for the pizza, you’re going to sit here for 45 minutes. You call and you get a number,” he said. “We are number 74.”
Patsy was a DiCarlo. Galdo DiCarlo originally opened this boutique before handing it over to employee Pasquale Vespa – “Patsy” for short.
The family did that sometimes. But these franchise agreements were not as onerous as those seen with national fast food chains today. Owners like Patsy had the freedom to make small adjustments where they saw fit.
“Patsy is different,” Yoho said. “The sauce is different. The cheese is crumbled instead of grated like long slices. The sauce is spicier; it has a kick of green chili. And the crust is thin and airy most of the time.
Molly Poffenbarger is originally from Charleston but moved to Wheeling after college.
“It scared me as a transplant,” she said. “I was intimidated by the whole thing, because someone said to me, ‘this is what you have to do, and there are no extra toppings.’ If you had to say ‘can I have some black olives?’ they would blackball you.
Yoho, in all his years dining at Patsy’s, could only point to one change to the pizza in recent memory.
“For the past 10 or 15 years they’ve added pepper rings that you can get on the side, in a bag,” he said.
There is a reason so little changed.
“You don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,” said Patsy’s longtime employee Erica Mitchum. “When it comes to fresh pizza, we’re a little closer to number one. Because we don’t pack it, we don’t prepare it until you get here. So it’s not like it’s sitting on top of the oven.
Yoho, a seasoned veteran, has a suggestion for making pizza even fresher. Patsy’s crumbled cheese melts faster than grated cheese at other places, so he orders a plastic bag full of extra cheese. He sprinkles this just before eating, ensuring he tastes like cold cheese with every crispy bite.
By the time I left Yoho and Poffenbarger, I had eaten pizza for lunch and dinner. But I still had one more stop on my tour – the DiCarlo in Wellsburg, about 20 miles north.
Came here at the suggestion of my friend Candace Nelson. You may know her as the author of “The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll Book”. She is also from Wellsburg and a die-hard DiCarlo fan there.
“Growing up, DiCarlo was a treat. There’s something to be known that on payday you can go to DiCarlo’s. And even if you have to wait an hour, it was worth it,” she said. “Because you knew when you get home you’ll have the tastiest pizza you’ll ever have until the next time you can afford that treat.”
When I arrived at Wellsburg DiCarlo, I found Mark Vaughn working in the kitchen, as he has done for 20 years. He told me it was one of the more traditional DiCarlos, opened by Galdo himself in the day before being taken over by owner Tim Morris.
“Same oven. Everything is pretty much the same. A few updates here and there, paint jobs and so on,” Vaughn said.
I had eaten a slice of pizza almost every hour I had been awake. So this time I only ordered one.
Mark suggested trying one with extra cheese and mushrooms.
I ate it the usual way – standing in the parking lot, box on the trunk. It was crispy, cheesy and chewy. The mushrooms gave extra flavor and texture. It was delicious, like all the other pizzas I had eaten that day.
He’s not a cop. Each of the three places I visited has its subtle differences. But I can’t say that there is one better than the others.
Let’s say Ohio Valley pizza goes national. When they open the first DiCarlo’s in Sioux Falls or Pensacola, pizza lovers are going to be delighted with the crispy crust, tangy tomato sauce and cold cheese. They won’t know if they have 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 that Ohio Valley folks—the real connoisseurs—have been debating for decades.
Everybody ? They’ll just be happy to have a damn good pizza.
This story originally aired on the August 19, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, made possible in part through support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies at the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation.