Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Brier Hill

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An early sketch of the Brier Hill district

Brier Hill. The Brier Hill works. Pizza, Italian Festival. St. Anthony’s Church. The story of the Brier Hill neighborhood weaves all of these elements together. The neighborhood’s history goes back to 1801 when George Tod, the father of Governor David Tod, moved to the newly settled town of Youngstown, having been appointed secretary for the Ohio territory. He settled on a farmstead northwest of the Youngstown settlement, naming it Brier Hill because of the briers that covered the hillsides.

When George Tod died in 1841, David inherited the farm but was more interested in what was underground. Seams of a high quality coal known as “block coal” ran under the farm and built his fortune in mining the coal, attracting Welsh settlers who had mining experience in Wales. The coal was in demand for the blast furnaces that were springing up along the Mahoning River, and Tod joined with others in opening the Tod No. 1 furnace in Brier Hill in 1847. By the 1880, blast furnaces and rolling mills lined the valley and attracted other immigrants, especially Italians who became the heart and soul of the Brier Hill community.

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Brier Hill Iron Company’s Grace Furnace circa 1889.

Until 1900, Brier Hill was its own village, with a post office and schools. Only then was it incorporated into Youngstown. There were three parishes that served different ethnic communities–St Anthony’s for the Italian community, St. Casimir’s for the Polish community, and St. Ann’s for the Irish and other Catholic residents. Only St. Anthony’s at 1125 Turin Street still serves the community. St. Casimir’s was sold for a dollar by the Youngstown Diocese to a group that formed the Brier Hill Cultural Center, located at 145 Jefferson Street. A group broke off from St. Anthony’s in 1907 and formed St. Rocco’s which was received into the Episcopal Church in 1918. In 1957, the parish relocated to Liberty Township and had its final services in 2006.

The Brier Hill neighborhood is bounded by Belmont Avenue on the east, the West River crossing on the south, West Federal Street (Route 422) on the west, and Gypsy Lane on the north. Part of the community, that includes Tod Field, is separated from the rest by the 711 freeway. Tod Homestead Cemetary occupies much of the northeast corner of the area.

Brier Hill pizza has its beginnings in the backyard ovens used for breadmaking in the Italian community. (There is a bread oven like one of these in Smoky Hollow’s Harrison Common.) Leftover dough was made into pizza topped with a sweet and thick tomato sauce known as “Sunday sauce,” bell peppers and Romano cheese. The sauce and peppers may well have come out of backyard gardens, and this simple but tasty pizza was probably a special treat during the Depression. Now, you can hardly sell pizza in Youngstown without offering a Brier Hill pizza. But the place to go is St Anthony’s on Friday’s. You need to order ahead and their website has the number to call with your order as well as a video with Casey Malone about their pizza making operation!

For the past 27 years, the Brier Hill Italian Festival has kept the Italian heritage of this community alive. For four days, up to 25,000 people come into the community for good food from one of twenty food vendors, music and Italian culture. The festival gathers at what is perhaps the Italian cultural heart of the community at Calvin and Victoria Streets, where the Italian American (ITAM) VFW Post is located. This started after we moved away, and in our endless quest for good Italian food, we’ve got to go sometime!

Today, Brier Hill, like many other parts of Youngstown struggles with population decline and the razing of properties in parts of the neighborhood. In 1997, the iconic Jenny blast furnace was demolished, one of the last leftovers of the Brier Hill works. In August of 2018, the city was trying to get rid of an illegal dumping ground right behind  St. Joseph the Provider school. St Anthony’s continues to serve the community, the Italian Festival draws business into the community, Jubilee Gardens, one of the larger community gardens with 32 acres, serves food needs in the community, and the Brier Hill Cultural Center keeps Polish culture and wider community history alive. One hopes those seeking to preserve this community, and its history, will be able to attract residents and businesses willing to invest in its future.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Brier Hill Pizza

Wedgewood's Brier Hill

Wedgewood’s Brier Hill

We were out to Xenia on Wednesday, and on the way back stopped to get a Brier Hill pizza from Wedgewood Pizza in Grove City. With the closing of Belleria’s store in Columbus, this is one of the few places left in the capitol city where one can get a Brier Hill pizza and probably the most authentic since the owner uses the same recipe as Fernando at the Austintown Wedgewood. [Since this post was first written, Wedgewood Pizza has closed its Grove City Store.]

Brier Hill pizza, like cookie tables, is a Youngstown original. It gets its name from the Brier Hill neighborhood, which became Youngstown’s “Little Italy”. The growth of the steel industry and the siting of blast furnaces nearby drew immigrants into this neighborhood, located on the western edge of the lower north side of Youngstown.

According to Wikipedia, Brier Hill pizza arose from a homestyle recipe influenced by the Basilicata region of Italy (located in the “instep” of Italy). Brier Hill pizza, like all good Youngstown pizzas, is based on a medium-thick crunchy, rather than doughy, crust. What makes it distinctive is that it is topped generously with a sweet and thick meatless “Sunday sauce” tomato sauce, bell peppers that add a tangy flavor, and Romano rather than mozzarella cheese. And that is it.

Saint Anthony of Padua Church [link includes a nine minute feature by Casey Malone of pizza-making at St. Anthony’s] in Brier Hill has probably done more than anyone else to promote the Brier Hill pizza. Every Friday, a team of church volunteers will make up to 300-400 pizzas for local residents that include original or sausage or egg pizzas either mild or spicy (spiced with peppers from Monsignor deMarinis’ garden). Locals need to order early to ensure getting what they want. Here is a video of the St. Anthony’s folk taking you through the process of pizza-making:

Brier Hill pizza as we know it today may very well have its origins in the recipes the women of St. Anthony’s used to come up with their pizzas. Given the meatless character of the pizza, my guess was that Brier Hill pizza arose out of the Depression era when everyone survived on their gardens with peppers and tomatoes as staples and leftover dough from breadmaking in outdoor ovens. This YouTube video interview (part of the Steel Valley Voices project) with Fred and Josephine Ross confirmed that suspicion and the working class origins of this unique item of Youngstown cuisine. [After posting, a couple people commented that the meatless pies were made on Fridays, which would have been meatless days for Catholic households.]

Now, practically any pizza shop in Youngstown, or with connections to Youngstown, will sell you a Brier Hill pizza. Looking to do it yourself? Here is one recipe I found online. There is also a recipe in the first volume of Recipes of YoungstownBut my hunch is that to discover the real deal, you have to get a pizza from St. Anthony’s or at the Brier Hill Festival, which will be held this year August 14-17. Maybe this will be the year we get there! Whether we do or not, one thing I can say: no one makes pizza like Youngstown pizza makers, and there is nothing like a good Brier Hill pizza!

Youngstown friends, who do you think makes the best Brier Hill pizza?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Pizza

If there is one thing those from Youngstown love to talk about whenever they meet up it is where to find good pizza, particularly pizza made the “Youngstown way.” That was sure made clear to me in the response to a recent post on visiting the Wedgewood Pizza in Grove City. One woman just commented on the post that she drives from Granville, Ohio to Grove City (about a 50 mile drive each way) just to get Wedgewood pizza. Those of us who don’t live in Youngstown are that desperate!

Wedgewood's Original Everything

Wedgewood’s Original Everything

Growing up in Youngstown, pizza seems to have been a Saturday night thing for many of our families. In the days when the men went to the factories and expected dinner when they got home, this was the day mom got a break. Even though my wife and I grew up on different sides of town, both of us have early memories of Saturday night pizza’s from Petrillo’s pizza, either from the Struthers area one for my wife, or the west side one for me. Our memories were of sheet pizzas cut in squares, usually pretty basic–cheese, lots of sauce, and pepperoni. I suspect both of our families opted for it because it was cheap and you got a lot for the money.

Later on, when I was in high school, I discovered Molly O’Day’s (or O’Dea’s, not sure of the spelling) pizza, made in a kitchen of the bar by that name on Salt Springs Road not too far from the mills. This was thanks to a girl I was dating at the time who lived near there. I put my family on to it, and from then on it was the standard until the cook left, after which it was never the same.

I think that pizza represented for me the “Youngstown way” for making good pizza–although I wouldn’t be surprised to get a few arguments here!  It had a thick, but light and not doughy crust. The sauce was rich, not thin like so many pizzas elsewhere, and this great mix of sweet and spicy. It was not slathered with cheese, but well covered without forming a “cheese mat”. The ingredients (we often just got pepperoni and green pepper) were generous without being overwhelming.

It seems that the favorite “date night” pizza place for many of us was the Pizza Oven just off of Market Street on Southern Boulevard near the old Sears Roebuck store and not far from the Uptown Theater. On a Friday or Saturday night the place would be packed and I don’t think anyone was over 22. We were students on campus when Inner Circle Pizza came to Youngstown and that tended to be our go-to place if my girlfriend and I (now my wife!) wanted to grab a pizza between classes or before an evening event on campus. Later on they opened a store on Mahoning Ave not far from my folks and that became their favorite.

Of course there were lots of great places to get pizza in Youngstown. Wedgewood and Belleria get mentioned a lot by Youngstowners in Columbus because they have stores here. But there is the Elmton in Struthers, Cornersburg Pizza (we’ve had some great pizza’s out of their Boardman store when we’ve been back to Youngstown). St Anthony’s Church (link is to a YouTube video of how they make pizza) has been mentioned by many for the best Brier Hill pizzas. When my parents moved up to the North side and lived at Park Vista, we’d run up to the Avalon Gardens to get Brier Hill pizza (I gather they have now moved to downtown Youngstown). I don’t doubt I am probably overlooking at least twenty-five other good places to get pizza in Youngstown and the surrounding areas like Girard (I hear Pizza Joe’s is good), Campbell, Lowellville, and others.

Wedgewood's Brier Hill

Wedgewood’s Brier Hill

No doubt that so much of the good pizza in Youngstown is attributable to the strong Italian-American community in Youngstown. I suspect that so many of the pizza places took grandma’s recipe and just kept perfecting it in this competition for Youngstown’s pizza dollars spent by people who knew good pizza. Pizza was one of the ways you kicked back and celebrated what was good about life, ideally accompanied with a cold beer. Pizza was a break from the everyday — for husbands, wives, and kids alike.

When did your family have pizza growing up? What were your favorite places? And what should we try the next time we are in Youngstown?

Want to read other posts in the Growing Up in Youngstown series? Just go to the “Growing Up in Youngstown” category on my homepage.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Wedgewood Pizza Columbus

If you are not from Youngstown, you probably don’t understand why it is a big deal that there is a Wedgewood Pizza store in Columbus. But if you live around Columbus, this means you have the chance to taste some great Youngstown pizza. Growing up on the west side of Youngstown and going to a church in Austintown, a suburb of Youngstown, we often had Wedgewood pizza–it was one of the great places to get good pizza in Youngstown.

Wedgewood Pizza Grove City, Ohio

Wedgewood Pizza Grove City, Ohio

Most of us transplanted Youngstowners often talk when we meet up about where to find good pizza. In fact, I mentioned in this in my blog post on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Food” and among the comments, learned that there was a Wedgewood store in Grove City, on the southwest side of Columbus (we already knew about and have eaten at the Belleria in Graceland). And since we were on vacation and had learned of some antique shops, and of course, a bookstore, we decided to make a day trip of exploring Grove City and topped it off with a visit to the Wedgewood Pizza store.

Wedgewood Pizza is actually pretty easy to find, although a little tricky to get into. If you take the west outerbelt (I-270) south to the Route 62 exit, just as you are turning right off the exit to go into Grove City, you can spot the store in the strip plaza across the street. To get there, you have to turn left onto Home Rd., and left again into Turnberry Court and left into the plaza and circle around to the front.

Dominic making our pizza

Dominic making our pizza

But it is well worth the trouble! We came in and met Dominic, the owner of the store. We got to talking and learned that he is a retired autoworker from GM Lordstown who grew up in Struthers and lived in Austintown. He was talked into going into the pizza business after retirement by his daughters, one of whom works with him in Grove City. He spent time working with the folks at the original Wedgewood learning how to make pizza the Wedgewood way and decided he liked it enough to take the plunge.

Order counter

Order counter

Dominic’s store is immaculate and he has something like eight ovens so he can crank out a lot of pizza. He has a nice eat in area with wi-fi and a good flat screen TV (that had World Cup soccer on when we were there). We ordered a 12″ Original Everything (Sauce, Green Peppers, Black Olives, Mushrooms, Sausage, Pepperoni, Salami, and Mozzarella). We got all that for $10.50! And it was heaven on a pizza crust–great thick Youngstown crust, rich sauce, fresh ingredients.

And then Dominic surprised us with a complimentary 8″ Brier Hill pizza (Brier Hill pizzas for the uninitiated have sauce, green peppers, and romano, not mozzarella cheese). I swear this is some of the best Brier Hill pizza I’ve eaten. Needless to say, we left stuffed but satisfied, and delighted to have made a new friend and talk about all the stuff we love about Youngstown (food, Mill Creek Park, more food!).

Brier Hill Pizza

Brier Hill Pizza

Original Everything

Original Everything

If you are a Youngstowner living in or near Columbus or passing through and didn’t know about this Wedgewood store, you should visit for a slice of home. Dominic says Youngstowners are a BIG part of his business. But if you are from the Columbus area, and want something different from that cardboard thin stuff that some folk think is “pizza”, you have to check out Wedgewood.