Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Roma and the Rouge - The Pepperoni Roll Lunch

Every army marches on its stomach. The legions of auto workers that staffed the arsenal of democracy were no different. I recently re-experienced a Ford Motor company food favorite that has nearly lost its tradition. The Pepperoni Roll.

Lunch for the Rouge
When Henry Ford's massive Rouge plant opened in 1928, the east end of Dearborn was still the village of Fordson. At first, many workers at the plant traveled by streetcar to make their shifts at the factory.
As the prosperity and wages of the workers grew, these laborers were now able to afford their own Ford automobiles. Employees could now drive themselves to the Rouge in their new rides.
Support business grew rapidly in the shadow of old man Ford's place. Rooming houses, bars, and restaurants popped up like mushrooms along avenues like Miller, Michigan and Schaefer.
In 1929, Fordson consolidated with the village of Dearborn to become the City of Dearborn.
Schaefer Avenue, was a major thoroughfare that routed workers to the Rouge from their domiciles on the burgeoning Northwest side. The road was lined with many restaurants and bakeries where Ford employees could grab a bite before or after work.
In Detroit before unionization, a 15-minute lunch break was common. A lunch that could be purchased, transported and eaten quickly was of great value to thousands of workers. Sandwiches of meat and bread became the staple of many a paper bag or lunch bucket. In the U.K., compact meat pies were very popular and this recipe emigrated to the U.S. as well.

Music during lunch hour at Morley Knight Co. Detroit - 1942
Le Roll du' sausage 
The first "Pepperoni Roll" or "Sausage Roll" is said to have been created in a little bakery in West Virginia. The baker saw coal miners on their lunch break with a sausage in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other. It was necessary to balance either on one knee while drinking a beverage. The baker solved this problem by baking sausage into the roll and offering it to the miners.  The one handed Pepperoni Roll soon became very popular.
Just how this idea migrated to Dearborn Michigan has been lost to the ages. One might speculate that, as many workers from the south migrated to Michigan for jobs in the factories, so too did their recipes.
The Dearborn / Detroit pepperoni roll is very well known through the offerings of the original Roma Bakery at 6142 Schaefer Road, an east end landmark.
Roma Bakery's golden era started in the late '50's and lasted through the early '80s under the skillful hands of its original owners. Catering to thousands of locals and Ford commuters daily, Roma Bakers were most certainly the originators of the Pepperoni roll in Detroit.

The Roll today
In 21st Century Detroit, there are many purveyors of the venerable pepperoni or sausage roll a favorite of the assembly line worker. In Dearborn, there are 3 major contenders, each with its own spin on the original. As the best version has long been a point of contention between this author, his family and friends, I have decided to review all three to put any comparisons to rest through a comparative review.

Capri Bakery - 2012

The Roll:  The dough is very good and just the right soft consistency. The Capri roll is subject to becoming "crusty" if left out too long, so they are best ordered early in the day fresh and hot. This roll is longer and thinner than the original Roma Bakery article however. Its extruded length may be a strategy to minimize the pepperoni filling.

The Pepperoni:  Excellent spicy pepperoni that lives up to the legend. Sliced properly that is in keeping with Roma's of Dearborn. A little thin in serving size as compared to the other rolls reviewed.
The Construction:
The added length on this roll means the dough is rolled fewer times. Fewer revolutions mean fewer pepperoni slices need be rolled in. It does not have the ideal girth and pepperoni serving size of the Dearborn Italian Bakery roll, for comparison.

Extras: None. The basic roll is available with sauce and cheese if you prefer.

Cost: $1.45 - Wow !  Extremely affordable.

Rating: B +
Capri Bakery
4832 Greenfield Rd
Dearborn, MI 48126
(313) 584-4449

Dearborn Italian Bakery - 2012

The Roll:  Is nicely shaped and the dough consistency is very good. This roll has the exact shape and girth of the original Roma's Dearborn roll. Not too chewy or dry. Obviously baked side by side, as you can see the separation mark. Not crusty or hard at all.

The Pepperoni: Biting in to the roll, the "mouth feel" seems correct. However, suddenly you realize this is not necessarily the best quality Pepperoni. The fat component was very high to the degree that I am still not sure if there was a layer of butter in there or not ! It's also a pretty dull pepperoni, not spicy at all.

The Construction:   This is my preferred distribution of pepperoni. Sliced, applied and then spiral rolled into the unbaked loaf.  Dearborn offers a generous helping of pepperoni in their rolls.

Extras: The basic roll is available with sauce and cheese if you prefer.

Cost: $2.50  However, to their credit, the rolls are 3 for $5 on Fridays.
Rating: B -  Had they better Pepperoni they would have scored higher. They use the same Pepperoni on their pizza that I always mark down for the use of sugar in their red sauce.

Dearborn Italian Bakery
24545 Ford Rd
DearbornMI 48128
(313) 274-2350

Roma Bakery - 2012

Today's Roma Bakery physically bears little resemblance to the old shop patronized by thousands of Ford workers and school kids alike. A Lebanese couple purchased the building and name years ago. They have since expanded the premises, menu and building.
The original Roma roll was made of soft dough with sliced pepperoni rolled in and baked.
Today the Roma product is nothing like the original. The current owners recently, quite shamelessly connected themselves to the original recipe and the late Roma proprietors in this article:

"About five years ago the wife of the original owner who has since passed away, visited the bakery and started crying as she hugged the Nemers, and thanked them for keeping the name."

They kept the NAME not the product. Proximity to the aging original owners does not qualify you for an endorsement.

"The pepperoni rolls at Roma Bakery, its biggest seller, have been locally famous for longer than half a century.  A line on the business cards reads: “The Home of The Pepperoni Rolls.”

Do NOT build your business on a product, process and company that no longer exists. You do NOT have 50 years in business. This not a half-century old recipe.

“No one makes the pepperoni roll like we do,”Amal said. 

That would be an accurate statement. It certainly is unique. Do not confuse the unique with the original.

The Review:

The Roll: Poorly shaped and oversized, the dough consistency is very "chewy". It appears to be a Calzone or even a distorted Cuban sandwich or Panini. It may as well be a loaf of flatbread.

The Pepperoni: Halal "pepperoni" is used. Halal is the Arabic word for "Permitted". Meaning food that is permitted under Islamic guidelines as found in the Qu'ran. While this is fine and a requirement of and for the Islamic community, these are not the old Italian processes for Pepperoni. It is just not the real article. The spices used in the Halal Pepperoni are very tame. NONE of the original pepperoni zing and rather "chewy".

Construction: The Pepperoni is NOT rolled in to the dough. They obviously haven't got this part figured out. It's like an oddly sliced pepperoni sandwich with two halves of dough, cheese and some meat sauce.

Extras: Sauce! Are you kidding ? No original Pepperoni roll would ever have sauce. You want sauce ? ... buy a Pizza ! In retrospect, it's possible that what I was served was their "Pizza Roll". So now both the service and the Pepperoni were substandard.

Cost: $ 2.50 !  I can remember paying $.50 for a roll back in the '70's. Sure, I understand inflation, but this price for a substandard product is outrageous.
Rating:  F -  No ethnic group owns the pepperoni roll. It's just coincidence that in Michigan, Italian bakeries picked up on this American product for the American worker. The current owners offer a kind of loaf with meat that does not follow this tradition. Not that they are required to.
The "New" Roma roll was wholly unsatisfying and frankly just plain bad.
It bears no resemblance to the Michigan original.

Roma Bakery
6412 Schaefer Rd
DearbornMI 48126
(313) 581-5000

Caviet Emptor
In 2012, Ford motor is doing well although the number of employees at the Rouge has greatly diminished. The old lunch pails have given way to plastic min-coolers. And, in at least one bakery in Dearborn, workers can still find a one-handed Pepperoni roll worthy of the original ROMA BAKERY.


  1. Thank you for the blog, I grew up in Dearborn, my Dad worked at the Rouge. I can remember the days of going to Roma's after school on a Friday or a Saturday morning to pick up a Pepperoni Roll, in a small paper sack ready to eat, ehich we did. Sad to see the store didn't continue to make them the way they perfected the process.

    Thanks again,
    Steve in TN now...

  2. I've tried the new version at the new Roma's I can agree with you 100%. Defininatly "F" rating. They ruined a good thing. I'll have to try the other places.
    Thanks for the memories.
    J. Homrich
    Toledo, Oh

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  4. Very good post...well i think writing this kind of article is a tough job.Thanks for your blog.

    halal restaurant Dearborn MI

  5. The original Roma's pepperoni roll's were out of bounds. Just a quarter back in the day. Capri, a roll sliced with pepperoni and cheese crammed in and then nuked. Fuhget about it! And the new Roma? don't even bother.