Every Friday morning before dawn, Ernie DiRenzo arrives at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Youngstown to make pizza. Like many Catholic parishes, St. Anthony has seen better days. Because of a general shortage of priests and a declining and aging congregation, the church merged in 2012 with Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, another parish that traces its roots back through the city’s Italian heritage. DiRenzo is there to do what he can to stem the tide.
The church is in the Youngstown neighborhood of Brier Hill, regarded as the city’s Little Italy. Every Friday, as a fundraiser for the church, DiRenzo and a team of volunteers make what’s known as Brier Hill pizza, a simple pie with red sauce, peppers, and Romano cheese.\ DiRenzo and his crew of 20 volunteers make about 300 pizzas—even more during Lent, when Catholics go without meat on Friday.
“It’s all guesswork,” says DiRenzo, a retiree from Niles, Ohio-based Cafaro Company, a real estate developer and mall builder. “We take orders for only as much dough as we have.”
The dish’s origins go back to the old country, and it was fairly widespread once upon a time throughout Italian communities in the Mahoning Valley. Now, the pizza has become most closely associated with the neighborhood up the hill from the banks of the Mahoning River. It’s a fundraiser for the church, but it also makes memories of the neighborhood—once home to a pair of steel mills before the industry dried up in the area—and the family and friends who made it generations ago seem not quite as distant.
“There’s a lot of history to it. It really was a way of life,” DiRenzo says. “And when we do it, it keeps that generation alive.”
Coal and Communal Ovens
Brier Hill was originally known for its coal. “Brier Hill coal was famous for being high quality,” says Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. “It could be used in steamships or blast furnaces, and you didn’t have to turn it into coke,” referring to the distillation process that makes socalled hard coal more usable.
The Brier Hill Iron and Coal Company Works was founded in 1847 by the Tod family. Their family farm—which took its name from the brier bushes that decorated the hillside—served as the company’s namesake. The earliest immigrants to Brier Hill were Welsh, and they worked in the company’s coal mines.
The Brier Hill Iron and Coal Company was the forerunner to the Brier Hill Steel Company, as Youngstown became a center for steel production. Andrew Carnegie built a mill across the river from Brier Hill’s mill, and in 1900, Youngstown Iron Sheet and Tube (the word iron would be dropped from the company’s name shortly thereafter) was incorporated.
Sheet and Tube bought Brier Hill Steel in 1923, becoming for a short time the largest corporation in Ohio. By the 1920s, the city’s population had tripled since 1900, to more than 130,000, drawn to work in the mills and factories that had sprung up throughout the city.
Three-quarters of the population of Youngstown in 1920 were either immigrants or first-generation American, and they came from all over, including Poland, Greece, Croatia, Serbia, Lebanon, and Italy. By 1930, there were 8,880 people who were born in Italy and living in Youngstown. They settled in a variety of neighborhoods, including the city’s East Side, the Smoky Hollow neighborhood adjacent to what’s now Youngstown State University, and Brier Hill.
“Italians were among the last group to settle in there, but eventually became the dominant group in the neighborhood,” Lawson says, noting that the first Italian immigrants to Brier Hill came in the 1880s. “They all lived down at the bottom of the hill along Division Street and migrated up the hill into better housing as other people left.”
The Italians who came to Brier Hill—or really, anywhere else in Youngstown—were working class, and the dish Brier Hill would be known for was born of those meager means. “It was initially made out of poverty,” says Fred Ross, 87, who with his wife grew up on Brier Hill during the Great Depression. “We used to get flour from federal relief, and we all had gardens and raised the ingredients that made [pizza].”
Brier Hill had communal ovens, built with bricks discarded from the mills. The men fired up the ovens before leaving for work, and the women made bread, says Thomas Welsh, an author of several history books on the Mahoning Valley, including one detailing the region’s restaurants and food traditions.
Any leftover dough that couldn’t make an entire loaf of bread would be used for pizza. It was simply adorned, with red sauce, peppers and “if you were lucky,” Ross says, “some Romano cheese.”
It was a common meal for Italian immigrants and their families, but it took the postwar pizza boom to become known as Brier Hill pizza.
A Legacy Endures
Because of its heavy Italian population, Youngstown was ahead of the curve on pizza sales. The Victoria Café was the first restaurant in Youngstown to sell pizza, in the late 1930s—a full decade before pizza restaurants became commonplace throughout the United States, Welsh says.
In the late 1950s, Nick Lavanty opened Lavanty’s Pizza on Belmont Avenue, not far from where he grew up in Brier Hill. His menu included Brier Hill Pizza. “At the time, I was the only one calling it that,” Lavanty recalls. “I grew up on it. I didn’t know anyone who used mozzarella for their pizza.
In 1973, the Rev. John DeMarinis became the pastor at St. Anthony, and it was under his watch that the church began making pizza using the same recipe. “Growing up, we just called it pizza,” DiRenzo says. “It didn’t start getting called Brier Hill pizza until Father DeMarinis came.”
The late DeMarinis wanted it called St. Anthony’s pizza, but it became known as Brier Hill pizza, and a tradition took hold. “It was made in Italian communities from Pittsburgh to Cleveland,” Ross says. “Brier Hill was just smart enough to jump on the naming of it.”
By then, the city’s population had started to shrink as residents moved out to the suburbs. The closing of the steel mills in the late 1970s hastened Mahoning Valley’s population decline. But the pizza tradition continued.
Today, Youngstown is home to a variety of family-owned pizza parlors, almost all of which have some variety of Brier Hill pizza on the menu. Some of them include mushrooms, onions or sausage, but most still hew closely to the original recipe of sauce, peppers, and Romano cheese. “That’s how it is still made at St. Anthony’s, which I think is still the best,” Ross says, “And many, many, many restaurants in the area.”
It remains one of the most popular pies at the Avalon Downtown. “The Av,” as locals call it, dates back to the 1930s, but it didn’t add pizza to the menu until the 1970s, says owner Anne Massullo Sabella, whose grandparents started the restaurant on Belmont Avenue, where it remained until it moved to its current location on West Federal Street downtown in 2012.
The Av offers Brier Hill as one of its take-and-bake pizzas, and as one of its hot-and-ready options late at night on weekends for people enjoying Youngstown’s nightlife.
“People have grown up eating it here,” Sabella says. “It’s a kind of nostalgia, like Italian wedding soup or a cookie table. People see it and say, ‘It reminds me of Grandma.’”