They’re on tables and counters in every pizzeria — often even chained with the Parmesan: glass, metal-topped shakers filled with red pepper flakes. For many, crushed pepper is part of the pizza experience — they’d no sooner take a slice to go without unscrewing the cap than New Yorkers or Chicagoans would cede claims to living in the world’s pizza capital. Questioning their association and how the tradition began is like asking why you’re dressing a hot dog with mustard or putting hot fudge on ice cream. "Why do it? Because that’s what you do!" But it had to start somewhere. Didn’t it?
Did the practice of seasoning pies with flakes start in America or Italy? New York City or Naples? Was it an Italian-American tradition or a culture brought over? What kind of peppers do the flakes come from? Try finding out. It could take years. Where do you even start?
"They’ve been around since the beginning," said John Brescio, owner of Lombardi’s in New York, which, having opened in 1905, is considered America’s first pizzeria. "We’ve always used them. In the beginning they were crumbled in a stainless steel bowl. And then there was a changeover in the '50s to pepper flakes in the shakers."
Across the Hudson, an hour’s drive south on I-95, Nick Azzaro (right), owner of Papa’s Tomato Pies in Trenton, N.J., offered a similar take. And as he’s not shy about saying, as owner of America’s longest continuously owned pizzeria, he’d know. "The guy at Lombardi’s tried to claim his was America’s first pizza. We proved him wrong."
Claims to America’s pizza history aside, Azzaro has Brescio’s back. "They’re on my tables every day," he said of pepper flake shakers. "They’ve been on my tables ever since I was a kid. Pizza and pepper flakes, it all does come together, but I don’t know exactly how or why."
It’s a simple question complicated by something Azzaro added, "They don’t use really hot stuff in Italy."
Of course, that’s not entirely true. "Abruzzese food is known for its use of chile peppers," noted Esquire food and drink columnist John Mariani (left), author of How Italian Food Conquered the World. "They call them little devils — diavolicchio. Over the last 300 years, they may well have been bred over there. They’re small chile peppers."
So, hot peppers are used on the eastern part of the Adriatic peninsula, but Azzaro has a point in that if you’ve visited Italy, you probably won’t recall pepper flakes served with pizza. If you heed the prevailing wisdom about the way to make pizza in its birthplace, you’re not supposed to use anything beyond basic ingredients: dough, sauce, cheese, oil, and basil if you’re talking about a Margherita. And if you go more "pure," just dough and sauce.
That’s the way it’s been done at L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, one of Naples’ most esteemed pizzerias. There are no pepper flakes on tables and no trace of them as ingredients in their sauce. Not that the owners, the Condurro family, would say. They’ve been making pizza in Naples since 1870 — formally since 1906, when Michele Condurro opened his first pizzeria. But they’re not exactly rushing to divulge secrets kept through five generations. Case in point, the glass partition behind which they stretch, sauce, and cheese pizza — actions not visible because the glass is lined with cardboard. In Italy, these kinds of details are typically kept from outsiders, even when they’re asked lovingly in Italian.