Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown — Food

As it happens, there are a number of Youngstowners living in Columbus. And when we run into each other, almost invariably the conversation turns to food. Usually it is something like this –” have you found a place with good Italian” or “do you know any place that makes pizza like we had in Youngstown” or else, “nobody around here understands that you have to have a cookie table at a wedding” (more about that later).

recipes of Youngstown

All this and more came rushing back with the arrival of Recipes of Youngstown, a cookbook that came together out a Facebook group of Youngstown natives who pooled their recipes into a cookbook to raise funds for a Youngstown landmark, Lanterman’s Mill.

All the Youngtown favorites were there. Our friend, Lynne, who put us onto the book, had contributed a recipe for chicken paprikash. I haven’t eaten this in ages but was reminded that this was common in Youngstown. Of course, there is a recipe for “Brier Hill Pizza” which had a thick sauce and was topped with bell pepper slices and romano as opposed mozzarella cheese. Along with this, you can find recipes for haluski, goulash, wedding soup (no one knows how to make wedding soup like Youngstowners), stuffed cabbages and peppers and more. Of course, there are recipes for pierogies–seemed like every Catholic church in the area sold these on Friday nights, except during Lent when it was fried fish. And there are recipes for rum balls, and kolachi and other holiday pastries, including pizzelles (although we decided that the recipe we use from “Aunt Mary” is better than them all!).

Isaly's

The cookbook reminded me of Isaly’s (and other deli counters as well) where you could order “chip-chopped” ham. Isaly’s was also known for the “skyscraper” ice cream cones–which was truly this elongated cone of ice cream scooped with a special scoop (see picture). We always thought that the ones served at the main Isaly dairy plant on Mahoning Avenue were the best. Of course there was also Handel’s ice cream, just down the street from where my wife grew up. People drove from all over town to this walk up ice cream stand that served the absolutely best home made ice cream. No wonder Handel’s now has franchises in Columbus (as well as Belleria Pizza)!

Probably the reason for all this good home cooking is that in working class Youngstown, you generally didn’t eat out often, and if you did, it was often at a bar or mom and pop restaurant that had a great chef. If the food wasn’t good, and plenty, the laborers wouldn’t patronize the place for long. Women were expected to have a good dinner on the table when their husbands arrived home from a day at the mill or shop. (That wasn’t always a happy thing–by today’s standard very sexist and a source of resentment for many women).

cookies-2

(c) Mahoning Valley Historical Society http://www.mahoninghistory.org

Then there were wedding receptions! There were tons of all this good food. It seems that the blue collar motto was, “if you can see the table, there is not enough food on it.” Along with that, the booze flowed freely and you worked it all off with lots of dancing. And then there was the cookie table. Families of the bride and groom would go into flurries of baking for the week before the wedding, baking dozens of cookies of all shapes, colors, and sizes–more than you could possibly eat at the wedding and so you found ways to take a stash home. There are only two places that seem to know about the cookie table, apart from those of us who have moved elsewhere, and that is Youngstown and Pittsburgh and there is a running feud between the two towns about where it started. Of course, I side with Youngstown!

What’s the significance of all this good food? I think it was that for many working class folks, particularly those who were immigrants or children of immigrants, they knew how hard life could be. They often had huge gardens because things were so tight that they couldn’t buy the food. That probably helped explain the rich sauces, often canned from last summer’s tomato crop. The diet was pretty high cholesterol and carb laden with meats and pastas. Perhaps it was that for the first time, some of these people were making enough to buy roasts and other meats. And the work was physical and you burned a lot of calories. As in many cultures, food was a way to celebrate the good and wonderful moments of life, like holidays and weddings, or even to find a form of consolation and shared fellowship at the wake for a lost loved one.

Recipes of Youngstown not only reminded us of all these good foods–it reminded us of the shared communal experiences of those growing up years in family, church, and celebratory gatherings. Now to try some of those recipes….

Read all the posts in the “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” series by clicking the “On Youngstown” link at the top of this page or the “On Youngstown” category on my home page!

57 thoughts on “Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown — Food

  1. ‘m from Youngstown and live in Pittsburgh and the cookie tables are pretty much the same. The best ever cookies are on them! My Mom and Aunt’s made cookies that were better than bakeries.

  2. Wonderful! Thank you for the push for Lanterman’s Mill! We are working to replace the water wheel, and every bit of publicity for our cookbook helps to inch toward out goal! Enjoy the recipes! it was truly a labor of love for us!
    Bobbi Ennett Allen

    • We have visited the Mill several times on trips back to Youngstown and have always loved Mill Creek Park. Practically lived there whenever I had free time as a teenager. Thanks for the great work on the cookbook. It was fun to page through and be reminded of so much good food!

  3. I live in Columbus too, and I’m from Youngstown. I’m always complaining about the pizza here. I call it ketchup on a cracker. Plus I had never seen a round pizza cut into squares before.

    • Jennifer, you are right! Uninspired crusts and sauce. What was your favorite Y’town pizza. We used to get some great pizza from a bar down by the mills, Molly O’Day’s. Cornersburg was always good as well.

      • I live in Las Vegas and whenever I come home to see my parents, they always have a Cornersburg pizza waiting for me. It is the best!

    • We live in Reynoldsburg and there is a Wedgewood Pizza in Grove City and a Belleria Pizza in Worthington. You can get DiRusso sausage at Marks in Westerville and DiRusso Cavatelli at Giant Eagle, slowly the Youngstown foods are making their way down to us.

    • I live in Lebanon Ohio and am also from ytown..I greenup on briar hill pizza,we had it every Friday at our school St.Anthony’s..also the pizza fritz..round sugar donut..the best donut ever and have never tasted one ever like it..

  4. Cornersburg was a regular at our house! I think the food was also a way of staying connected to people’s pasts. When you were transplanted, you brought your recipes with you. That was one thing that didn’t have to be abandoned, and I think that was a comfort in the midst of hard work and long days.

  5. We’re from Youngstown (Austintown) and have lived in Florida for 12 years…It is humorous (to us) that no one knows what kalochi, wedding soup, pieroghies etc even are and we have to explain. Still haven’t found any pizza here as good as Cornersburg or Wedgewood, our favorites. The other thing we can’t find is a really good dounut like Isalys used to make back in the day. There are many memories from Ytown, among them the great food–wish we could find it here! Thanks for sharing!!

    • Terry, appreciate your comments. We have the same experiences, except there are a lot of Youngstown people in Columbus. At least we all understand! –Bob

  6. I live outside of Atlanta and haven’t lived in Y town for years but still miss the food. I got my Recipes of Youngstown cookbook and it’s fabulous. Brought back any g [d memories. I can’t wait to use it.

  7. Love your article! We actually came together like any ol’ Facebook group with no philanthropic intentions. It was all about sharing the memories. Finally we had so many recipes collected and the group had grown so huge that someone made like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and said, “Hey, kids! Why don’t we put on a show? (Read: Why don’t we do a cook book?) From there our fearless leader, Bobbi Ennett Allen hit the ground running, mustered the troops, picked our favorite cause–Mill Creek Park–and the rest is history. I’m in Atlanta, lo these many years, and it’s been a joy to share in the group. If you’d like to join, don’t hesitate! Just be a foodie from Youngstown and the red carpet is rolled out to welcome you.

  8. Live in Chicago and there is no pizza here that comes close to what we have in Youngstown. Can’t wait to come home again

  9. My favorite pizza was at Town Tavern on Mahoning Ave. I have not lived in Ytown for over 50 yrs but the memories never go away. As a teenager we hung out at Libby’s at Mahoning and Raccoon Rds. I will get the cookbook. I was watching Fargo on TV last nite and they served scrapple sandwiches at the diner!

    • That’s what was so amazing about Youngstown was that you had these little places all over town that served a particular neighborhood, and all of them were good! Scrapple–now there’s a memory! Thanks for the comment.

  10. Thank you Bob – I too grew up in Youngstown, moved to California and now live in New Zealand. Even though NZ has amazing meat, I can’t find sausage like we grew up with. And my lifelong quest is still, “Is there a GOOD Italian restaurant around?!”

    • I didn’t even mention DiRusso’s at the Canfield Fair. Was always our first stop when visiting the fair. We can get DiRusso’s here. But we even struggle to find good Italian–one that comes close but that’s about it.

  11. Great article!! From Yo-town and living in Columbus; I would give anything to find a great pizza place and a place that knows what a Pepperoni Roll really is!! Theres a great mom & pop resturant in Westerville called Pasquales which has great sauce!! Still looking for a great pizza place!!

    • Some of the others who commented talked about Belleria in Graceland as well as a Wedgewood Pizza in Grove City. Never thought Belleria was the best Youngstown has to offer but still better than almost anything you can find here.

  12. I grew up in Youngstown but have lived many places since marrying. Now I’m living outside Baltimore. When our daughter got married the caterer had never heard of a cookie table – we educated her!! Had a great cookie table thanks to my mom, sister and sis-in-law. I had never realized this was a uniquely Yo-town thing. What a great place to have grown up!!

  13. I’ve still never been anywhere that has had as good pizza or wedding soup as Youngstown, it’s no comparison. Perhaps New York and couple places in Chicago have to imagine can compare. I can name/list about 10-15 restaraunts alone just like everyone else that has/had the very best italian food including homemade pastas, wedding soup, and especially pizza.The homemakers and chefs that relocated to Y-town during early mill days had to have something to do with this iconic historical fact.

    • Agreed! Thanks for your comment. Because some of us are so desperate, we actually have Youngstown restaurants that have opened franchises in Columbus where we live.

  14. I have been in North Carolina for 25 years, but still come back to Youngstown two or three times a year: Belleria, Wedgewood and Gia’s pizza, LaRoccas in Poland for pasta, does anyone remember Petrillo’s Pizza down Yo-Po road toward the mill? We stop at Rulli Brothers and stock up right before we leave – nobody carries Romano cheese around here. Wedding Soup? We have to explain escarole to people – they call it “lettuce”. Your article described my childhood exactly. Riding my bike to baseball practice, stopping at Isaly’s on the way home…or the toy aisle in Ben Franklin’s… My father worked at Isaly’s briefly before getting a steel job. Thanks for the memories…

    • Thanks for sharing yours! My wife lived in Brownlee Woods and her family got Petrillo’s all the time. They had one on the west side for a time, the one on the west side wasn’t the best but it was handy. Sounds like the one on your side of town was better!

  15. I’m from Struthers and now live in Denver. My niece is getting married and I will be providing the cookies. I had to jump through hoops to be allowed to bring in ‘outside’ food. The caterers here have no idea!!! The pizza here is ok, I’ve been here over 5 years and have found 3 places with pizza that is only close to what I am used to! There is, however a Quaker Steak and Lube here! When I went back to Ohio this past fall, I stopped at LaVilla on my way home from the airport!

    • I forgot to mention that we have Quaker Steak here as well, although that was actually a Sharon, PA original (I’ve eaten in the original which was a converted gas station. Sounds like there is some work needed in educating wedding caterers about cookie tables. Someone else in these comments did the same things. Thanks for your comment!

  16. Any chance you would share Aunt Mary’s pizzelle recipe? Also, I am from Warren, and now in Denver. My favorite pizza was Carmen’s in Warren and I have never found anything close. The cookbook is great, received mine 2 days ago.

    • You are right! The word is spelled both ways, but as it applies to the Youngstown pizza favorite and the area it is named after, it should be with an “e”.

  17. Pingback: Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–Mill Creek Park « Bob on Books

  18. I grew up in Youngstown, and am now living in the Northern VA/DC area. Your post reminded me of so many awesome memories. You don’t really appreciate what you have culturally in the Youngstown area until you move away. How I miss Mill Creek, great pizza, cookie tables, and my roots:-)

    Whenever we come to Youngstown, we always make stops to Wedgewood Pizza, Belleria, and Quaker Steak and Lube. Yum!

    • Thanks for your comments! I hear this from so many Youngstown people. I think Youngstown has often gotten a bad rap, but for many of us who grew up there, it is indeed a place of rich memories!

  19. Pingback: Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Wedgewood Pizza Columbus « Bob on Books

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