Saturday, September 20, 2014
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The stromboli: A Philly original, courtesy of Romano's

Sometime at the height of her career in 1947, Hollywood starlet Ingrid Bergman, sat down to write a letter to Italian neorealism director Roberto Rossellini. A great admirer of his talents, she hoped to work with him on a film one day.

The stromboli: A Philly original, courtesy of Romano’s

Sometime at the height of her career in 1947, Hollywood starlet Ingrid Bergman, sat down to write a letter to Italian neorealism director Roberto Rossellini. A great admirer of his talents, she hoped to work with him on a film one day.

“If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well,” she wrote, “and who in Italian knows only ‘ti amo,’ I am ready to come and make a film with you.”

Rossellini responded favorably to her note, and the pair set to work on what would become the classic Italian-American neorealism drama Stromboli the following year. It was the affair—complete with love child—the two cultivated during Stromboli’s filming, though, which grabbed the American public’s attention when the movie came out in 1950.

It was, in many ways, the entertainment scandal of the decade. Fervor over Bergman’s salacious affair was so great, in fact, that at one point, Colorado Senator Edwin C. Johnson denounced the actress during a meeting on the Senate floor. Her career damaged and her lifestyle condemned, Bergman wouldn’t return to the US until the release of her Oscar-winning performance in 1956’s Anastasia.

Nazzareno Romano, however, wasn’t thinking about all that as he tinkered away on a new dish for his Essington pizza shop, Romano’s Pizzeria, in 1950. Working in the form of “pizza imbottito,” or “stuffed pizza,” he put together ham, cotechino salami, cheese and peppers into a bread dough pocket and popped it in the oven. The result was a delicious hot sandwich with a little spice that, flavor aside, still lacked a similarly hot, spicy name.

Ingrid Bergman, of course, provided the answer. The scandal broke, and in a bit of prototypical viral marketing courtesy of his brother-in-law, Romano had the name for his unique new dish: the stromboli, now an Italian-American—and Philadelphian—classic.

“Just two layers of dough, lunch meat, cheese, and peppers—that’s all it is,” says Peter Romano Sr., 82, son of Nazzareno and current owner of Romano’s, still located in Essington. “It was a very tasty way of having a hot sandwich with Italian lunch meats in actual fresh-baked bread.”

A simple goal and definition. You will note no mention of sauce, toppings, or pizza dough, as is common for the half-moon-shaped calzone or deep-fried panzarotti—descriptions that regrettably have come to be associated with Romano’s invention. Sandwiches, ordinarily, don’t use those ingredients, and as a sandwich, neither does the stromboli—no matter what your local pizza shop says.

“Most people are just giving you flopped-over pizzas that they heated up a little bit,” says Peter Romano Jr., 60, grandson of the stromboli’s inventor. “The stromboli is most definitely a sandwich. Most people don’t think that.”

Open since 1944 and one of the first Italian restaurants in Delaware County, Romano's is familiar with that type of ignorance. The product was so alien to the area in the beginning that locals, unfamiliar with pizza as a food option, mistakenly referred to Nazzareno as “Mr. Pizzeria,” thanks to his business’ apparently confusing signage. Still, though, they kept moving pies and changing minds, ultimately opening the floodgates for Delco’s ongoing pizza parlor-heavy restaurant load.

“We more or less educated people in the area as to what pizza is,” Romano Sr. says. “In 1944, these people had no idea what a pizza was whatsoever.”

They did learn, though. Sort of—the message ultimately being lost in translation when it comes to the stromboli. Even within a few blocks walk from Romano’s, you can still find pizza-doughy versions that miss the mark and disgrace the original intention of the humble stromboli. And people like them, a fact that, amazingly, doesn’t bother Romano Jr.

“If someone was raised on strombolis made of pizza dough and they haven’t been here, they might not like our food. It goes the other way too.”

So, while people are free to not enjoy Romano’s food, they do have to pay their respects. Because, after all, without Romano’s, fans of the bastardized saucy, gooey version of the true stromboli wouldn’t have something to form that opinion about. But, still, there are pretenders to the throne who claim their stromboli—not Nazzareno’s—is the original.

The most notable is Mike Aquino of Mike’s Burger Royal in Spokane. Invented in 1954, that West Coast-style version is described as “cappocolla ham and provolone cheese smothered in an Italian chili sauce on a French bread roll.” It is essentially the stromboli version of throwing a grilled sirloin on a roll with a slice of Kraft and calling it a cheesesteak. It’s also something that Romano Sr. says upsets the locals who know the truth.

“If you talk to the old-timers,” he says, “they get offended when someone says the stromboli was invented somewhere else because they love the story. In a little town like this, this is where it started.”

And, indeed, it is from that same little town that it grew. Located near the airport, Romano’s would regularly get calls in the early days from stewardesses while flights were still in the air requesting strombolis for when they landed. Some even took home made-to-order frozen strombolis to enjoy in Los Angeles, or Texas, or, more than likely, Spokane.

As air travel increased during the '60s and '70s, so too did the spread and distribution of Romano's' pride and joy, an achievement the family marked with stars on a map to show their strombolis’ destinations. Displayed in the restaurant’s dining room, the map shows dots all over the US, and sporadically overseas—each one representing a time someone enjoyed their food so much, they went to great lengths to share it.

That, of course, is not something any of the Romanos could have predicted. It is, after all, just two layers of dough, lunch meat, cheese, and peppers. But it is those ingredients the same way a cheesesteak is “just” beef, Whiz, and bread—in combination, they define something in our collective character and tell our history to us in a bite. Though, as with Ingrid Bergman, Nazzareno wasn’t thinking about that in 1950. 

“It wasn’t a big to-do at all,” Romano Jr. says. “It was something we made up, and it made us different. As far as what it is now, Grandpop never could have dreamed it.”

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