Rich Culture and Delicious Grub in Weirton, WV – Chef Ambassador Story
Written by Chef Ambassador, Matt Welsch.
Photography by Daniel Finsley
We are, and always have been, a people on the move. In today’s age of interstate travel, red-eye flights and constant movement, it’s easy to forget that, to a certain extent, it’s always been this way. It’s all too easy to overlook how good we’ve gotten at it.
In the relatively recent past, the Ohio River served as two major things to European settlers heading West – a boundary and a highway. And whether it was stopping motion or encouraging it further, the river certainly created a comma in the sentence that was westward expansion. It was a pause that allowed people and their things to gather, just as a bend in a normally swift river does. And as those things gathered, they formed the rich culture and history of our Ohio River Towns.
From the northernmost tip of the state in Chester, down past New Martinsville, and all the way South to where the river makes it’s westerly careen off towards the Mississippi, West Virginia river towns collected people of all sorts from all walks of life and all sorts of backgrounds. And with that menagerie of folks came all kinds of food.
Weirton, West Virginia is a short forty-mile drive out of Pittsburgh, PA and as a West Virginia river town and steel town, it has attracted folks from all over the globe to work and live. And also to make that lasting, though sometimes subtle, mark on the landscape with their national personality, music, culture and the flavors that wrap up identity and history.
Folks the world over haven’t stopped traveling to and through the area and many have stuck around, gathering a legacy of family and heritage about them. Here are three of my favorite places to get a taste of culture in the narrow strip of our state between Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Greek immigrants changed the face and the flavor of the Ohio Valley en force in the early 1900s, with many families coming over to Weirton from Pittsburgh and then following the river south to opportunities in other cities and communities. Many worked in the Valley’s mills which were booming at the time.
Theo Yianni’s has taken the Greek traditions of great food and even better hospitality and updated all of it in their newly constructed restaurant. A welcoming staff and atmosphere guides you to some truly classic Grecian flavors.
Make sure to taste Greece at her finest – lamb lollipops, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, spanakopita and more. The menu itself is truly a lesson in both culture and mouth-watering food. And it also brings the tried-and-true into today with dishes like the Pittsburgh Bangy Wrap and The Hucklebuck burger. Platters, sandwiches, pasta and entrees galore – by the time you finish your visit, even the pickiest in your party will be singing “The Children of Piraeus.”
Much like their Mediterranean cousins, Italians immigrated to the area in droves at the turn of the 20th century, driven by dreams of opportunity and commerce. The sons and daughters of Italy also worked river mills and proudly brought their culture and cuisine to these Appalachian mountains.
The hearts and hands behind La Cucina are both dusted in flour and proudly Italian. Looking with a cook’s eye, I quickly noticed that their space was half dining area and half kitchen, which is a large ratio of cooking to dining space. And I soon saw how they put that kitchen to masterful use.
Somehow when you step across the threshold of La Cucina, you take a step into Little Italy. Glance behind you? Weirton, WV. Looking forward? A small, intimate dining room packed with the rich smells of Italian American food – both comforting and elegant, like a Dean Martin serenade in your nose. And if your nose, eyes, and now watering mouth aren’t enough to guide you, then the efficient and sweet service certainly will. Honestly, if you want my suggestion, get a glass of wine and take some time making your choices. La Cucina is an experience to savor, not rush.
Read through the Zuppa, Insalate, Antipasti, Pasta, Pizza Napoletana and Specialita della Casa or “House Specialties.” The menu reads as a love letter from a dark-eyed beauty to her lover across the ocean. And speaking of the ocean, the seafood pastas are jaw-dropping. West Virginia may not be close to the ocean, but it is close to an International Airport, assuring astoundingly fresh fish, shrimp and lobster.
It’s all too easy, when we’re talking about history and culture to think that it ended on some arbitrary date that can now be studied like a locust nailed to a board. That’s quite simply not true. Appalachian Culture, just like all cultures that still exist in the world, is growing and developing every day. It’s changing. It’s evolving. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to see Crazy Mexican on the list. Where once immigration was dominated by Europeans, we are now seeing folks from all over the world resettle in West Virginia.
A trip to Crazy Mexican is the next best thing to jumping on a bus to Mexico City. This isn’t Mexican food like you’re used to – this is the real deal. Fresh, bold and oftentimes sizzling, you may see many dishes you recognize on the menu, but Crazy Mexican will also show you something new about each. The space itself is crazy and cool, hip yet inviting, industrial but somehow comforting. However, as great as the space is, your focus will narrow when the server brings your food. Steaming hot, the smells hit you first before your eyes widen to take in the plates. You’ll be glad you didn’t eat that whole basket of chips, friends. You’ll need the room.
Quite honestly, everything on the menu amazes. The burritos, the birria, ceviche, elote – you cannot make a wrong turn. All exits lead to joy. There is one menu item I can’t recommend enough: the Molcajete. Served in a hot volcanic stone bowl, they’re a sight to behold that can be shared – or not.
Meet The Chef Ambassador
Owner & Executive Chef of Vagabond Kitchen
Matt Welsch is an award-winning chef and restaurateur in Wheeling, West Virginia. He began his culinary journey in the dish pits of his college campus and has manned the lines in kitchens all over the country as he rode his motorcycle along blue highways to sample the culinary diversity of the United States.
Chef Matt has been featured on Guy’s Grocery Games, The Cast Iron Cookoff, West Virginia’s 40 Under 40, Taste WV Magazine, WV Living and Bon Appetit. He believes simply that everyone deserves to eat good food. Chef Matt currently serves up flavorful creations as the Owner and Executive Chef of Vagabond Kitchen.
This post was last updated on May 12, 2023