In researching the origin of the word stromboli for the hot meat-filled Italian sandwich that is a feature at many pizzerias, the folks at the Oxford English Dictionary found their way to a cryptic entry in the April 10, 1950, copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There, on page 21, in the “It’s Happening Here” column by Frank Brookhouser, was this tidbit: “In South Philadelphia, the hogie is now called the Stromboli.” (Hogie was the accepted spelling of hoagie in The Inquirer until a few years later.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says this is the oldest reference they have found so far referring to stromboli as a food.

That was it. Nothing else was said about the so-called new name. The statement hangs out there mysteriously, making one wonder how and why Brookhouser, who died in 1975, banged out that sentence on a typewriter and whether anyone actually called a hogie a stromboli, except for him.

That aside, the mention of a stromboli being used in a food sense merited attention, and the timing all seems to fall strangely into place.

Pamela Wagner, a Washington-based senior editor for the OED, said when a word is being considered for inclusion in an update of the dictionary — as is the case with stromboli — researchers seek out the earliest use of it in a quotation to support its meaning.

“This quotation was selected by lexicographers in Oxford because it was the earliest example of this sense that they could find," Wagner said.

It would be 13 years before stromboli would appear again in The Inquirer as a food item, and in this case it was for a recipe for an open-faced sandwich that in no way resembles what we now know as a stromboli.

In the meantime, it appeared always a capital "S" Stromboli, referring to the volcanic island near Sicily of that name, a racehorse, or the eponymous film set on the island that took on a scandalous hue when it came out that its star, a then-married Ingrid Bergman, had shacked up with director Roberto Rossellini, and became pregnant with a son. The film opened in theaters on Feb. 15, 1950, just two months before Brookhouser sat down to compose his column for April 10.

(As a side note, in the 1940 animated Disney film Pinocchio, Stromboli is the name given to the character Mangiafuoco in Carlo Collodi’s book The Adventures of Pinocchio.)

The stromboli origin story

By the 1970s, the stromboli sandwich appeared more frequently in The Inquirer and an origin story emerged from Delaware County.

It would seem that Nazzareno (Nat) Romano, an Italian immigrant who opened his Essington Pizzeria in 1944, liked to tinker with new dishes. Working in the form of “pizza imbottito,” or “stuffed pizza,” he put together ham, cotechino salami, cheese, and peppers into an Italian bread dough pocket and popped it in the oven.

Romano did not know what to call it until a young man who would become his son-in-law, Bill Schofield, came in and suggested stromboli.

Romano’s son, Pete Romano Sr., was there for the naming in January 1950.

Old menus at Romano's, which was founded in 1944, and is still family run.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Old menus at Romano's, which was founded in 1944, and is still family run.

“Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini are the reason,” he said, recalling that the scandal inspired calls for boycotts of the film, prompted a denouncement on the floor of the U.S. Senate and made the actress persona non grata in the United States for several years.

The first strombolis, by the way, sold for 45 cents.

The timing of scandal and the appearance of the stromboli has not been lost on dictionary researchers, who see it as possible influence for the name, Wagner said. It would appear that they are on the money.

Thanks to visiting flight crews from nearby Philadelphia International Airport who stayed at a hotel in Essington or shared “crash pads” in the waterfront town, the stromboli spread far beyond its Delco roots, Peter Romano Jr., Nat’s grandson, said.

Seventy years on, Romano’s Pizzeria as it has been known since 1954, sells 25,000 to 30,000 strombolis a year at the store and through mail order, Peter Jr. said.

From three original types — sweet pepper, hot pepper, and pepperoni — the line as has expanded to 10 choices, including cheesesteak and nonmeat spinach or broccoli sandwiches. Stromboli, Peter Jr. stresses, are made with Italian bread dough, not pizza dough.

Pete Romano Sr. and Pete Romano Jr. at Romano's in Essington, the pizza shop where the stromboli originated.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Pete Romano Sr. and Pete Romano Jr. at Romano's in Essington, the pizza shop where the stromboli originated.

He is mystified as to how Brookhouser came to declare that the hoagie was being renamed the stromboli, but after some thought, offers a theory.

“It’s not a hoagie, but it has hoagie meats,” Pete Jr. said, suggesting the columnist might have misheard a description of the then-new stromboli sandwich.

Seems plausible.