Friday, May 26, 2017

Brier Hill Pizza - Youngstown, OH

The Hackknife clan recently traveled back to my dad's hometown near Youngstown, OH for yet another cousin wedding (this one likely to be the last for quite some time - they're all hitched now).  I always enjoy having the opportunity to visit with my extended Italian family and, of course, sample Italian-American goodies I don't always encounter elsewhere.  On this trip, much to my astonishment, I came across a pizza style I hadn't seen explicitly defined before (that's not entirely true - First We Feast mentions it in an August 2016 article on American pizza taxonomy, but the picture associated with it isn't correct) called Brier Hill, named after an historic enclave of Youngstown where many Italian families settled to work in the now-shuttered coal mines and steel mills.  According to my sources, this pizza style has roots in the Basilicata region of southern Italy and includes a thick layer of tomato sauce (similar, if not identical to, the sauce or "gravy" used on pasta) atop an olive oil pan crust, along with green peppers and grated romano cheese (usually Pecorino romano) in place of shredded mozzarella.  The concept appears to have been born from the ingenuity of thrifty immigrants, who had ready access to tomatoes and peppers from their backyard gardens and, needing a break from frequent spaghetti dinners, leftover pasta sauce.

Conveniently enough for me, one of the prominent local purveyors of this pizza style (Wedgewood Pizza) happened to have a location just down the street from our hotel in Howland, so I was able to pop in to grab a 12" Brier Hill for lunch before the wedding.

My first impression of this dish is that it's not all that dissimilar from some of the pizzas that my grandmother and great-grandmother used to make for us when we were visiting from Chicago.  Although the ancestors on my dad's side came from a different region of Italy and (likely as a result) settled in another Italian neighborhood of Youngstown apart from Brier Hill, they no doubt had similar customs and sensibilities when it came to food (and probably interacted with a lot of Basilicatans as well), so it's no surprise that all of the Mahoning Valley Italian nanas made pizza pie like this.  The Wedgewood version doesn't skimp on the sauce (it's pretty robust with oregano and other spices), which is applied in a thick layer, sprinkled with chopped green peppers and grated cheese, and then baked in a large gas oven (they had 6 ovens at the Howland location - apparently, the locals love pizza).  I can't say that Brier Hill style is my favorite (I missed my mozzarella), but the nostalgia value alone is enough to bring me back someday.

If you've been to Youngstown lately, you'll note that much of it (including Brier Hill - we inadvertently passed through while driving around town) is significantly diminished from its heyday in the early/mid-20th Century, but one of the local Catholic parishes (St. Anthony) still churns out Brier Hill pizzas every Friday to help raise funds for the church.

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