BELLEFONTE – The pig and New Year’s Day go hand in hand.
In Bellefonte on New Years Eve, Clem Pantalone was at his familiar spot in Bellefonte, the old gas station not far from Bellefonte Area High School. The regulars were there, getting a helping of pork or other items for the New Year’s Day celebrations.
2021 was a busy year for Clem. One of his busiest days was a fall Friday afternoon in Happy Valley. Clem had just finished preparing his famous barbecue for the ESPN team that was in town for the Penn State Whiteout contest with Auburn and College GameDay, the morning show that originated on the Old Main lawn.
As Pantalone made his way through the jammed streets of State College, he spoke about the joys of feeding the masses.
“It was fun, about 110 people to feed,” Pantalone said of feeding ESPN. “It was good.”
Clem, of course, owns the popular BBQ by Clem food truck. Most days the food truck can be found somewhere in Center County, but it also shows up occasionally in Clinton County.
According to Clem, the folks at ESPN College GameDay liked his barbecue so much that they wanted to feature it on Saturday morning’s show. But he refused. After all, he has to feed his hungry followers.
“I don’t need to go on TV” Clem said laughing.
Well, you are right. When you cook a delicious barbecue that people drive from all over Center and Clinton counties and beyond, you don’t need free publicity.
By his count, Clem has been barbecuing since 1994, a total of 27 years. Their menu is small, but powerful. There are their famous barbecue ribs, chicken leg quarters, pulled pork, and pulled chicken. And, of course, a host of popular side dishes: mac n cheese, macaroni salad, potato salad, and coleslaw.
Clem’s food truck is more popular than ever.
“It’s crazy,” Clem said. “We have a lot of loyal customers. They are as loyal to us as they are to Penn State. “
The most popular item on the menu?
“Half of our business is ribs” Clem said.
However, the shortage of ribs has wreaked havoc on his business.
“We are only getting 20 percent of what we need. There was a (recent) Sunday, we could have gone through 100 racks and we only had 11 “. he said.
And after the ribs?
“Pulled pork barbecue is definitely number 2,” Clem said.
Pulled pork is popular, you think, because it’s so easy. All you need is a serving spoon and a few muffins, so it’s often a staple at back doors, proms, and the like.
She also prepares specialty dishes like pulled pork nachos. Imagine pulled pork and gooey cheese piled high in a paper boat with nachos.
“We will do them from time to time and it is very popular. It’s more for festivals and things like that. “ Clem said.
What about those popular side dishes?
“Mac and cheese is number one, then cole slaw and they love our potato salad,” Clem says.
You’re making a wasabi coleslaw, so look for that in a future menu.
“It’s our coleslaw with wasabi mixed in, but it’s really good.” Clem says.
Are you going to doubt him?
Clem has survived the test of time and has had many incarnations in the Central Region. Of course, there was a barbecue stand along State Route 322 in Port Matilda. When Interstate 99 was built, it wiped out almost all business along that stretch of highway. But Clem adapted. He just changed locations and moved. But he always stayed in Center County.
And those loyal customers? Oh, Clem has stories.
“We had a stop when we were in Port Matilda. He said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to eat these ribs tonight at Clemson.’ I said, ‘Clemson? How are you going to get there? ‘ He said, ‘Oh, I flew in my jet to get these.’ Clem said, laughing.
Closer to home, he said he had a woman drive to State College from Cresson, Pennsylvania, over an hour’s drive, to have a barbecue.
“She came in on a Monday and we are not normally open on Monday unless it is a public holiday. It was. I said, ‘What would you have done if we weren’t open?’ She said, ‘Oh, I would have turned around and driven to the one in Blairsville.’ I said, ‘You guys are crazy.’ Clem said, laughing.
The woman was referring to Clem’s Cafe, a roadside barbecue stand along State Route 22.
“This is how I ended up here” Clem said. “A lot of Penn Staters were from Pittsburgh and they were exposed to us.”
Surprisingly, Clem didn’t get his food truck until 2019. It’s hard to miss the yellow truck with Clem’s black BBQ lettering on the side.
“This is where it is” Clem said about the food truck. “You can go anywhere and they will hit you hard.”
So how did an Italian become a barbecue master? Clem started at a restaurant called Kangaroos in the early 1990s. There was a babysitter along McKnight Road in Pittsburgh and one in Indiana, Pennsylvania.
His motto was “Ribs, wings and fun.”
“They were very similar to the champions”, Clem said. “We went to these roads that had very few restaurants. There were very few chains. The chains really blew up in the 90’s. So I ended up with the barbecue. Everybody loved my ribs. But I’ve worked on them ever since. They were never made of firewood or anything like that before. “
Clem acquired the food truck in 2019 and was scheduled to begin selling it in March 2020. Sure enough, the COVID-19 pandemic began, forcing bars and restaurants to close the indoor dining room. Suddenly, food trucks began popping up all over Center County.
“We were prepared for it. We had meals that people could take home. “ Clem said.
The now-defunct Facebook group, “Central County COVID Grants” I’d list where certain food trucks would be on the weekend. BBQ by Clem was set up in the Bellefonte Area High School parking lot and the line used to be 15-20 people deep.
Wherever you find BBQ by Clem, you will generally find Rosie’s Pierogies, another popular food truck. Clem has teamed up with Ashley Hamilton. Together, it’s a fantastic one-two hit.
“We are associated, sister companies. It has been great,” Clem said.
However, despite everything, the lines are never too long. People come. People wait. Clem loves serving them all, he says.
“Oh absolutely” Clem said. “It has been 27 years. I love it.”