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.
"Foodie" culture has still not really arrived in Italy the way it has in America, and in-depth analysis of the more seemingly mundane aspects of cuisine is still considered a bit ridiculous by those with a more traditional approach to food. So it’s not surprising that repeated emails in English and Italian went unanswered, and that a call made in Italian about pepper flakes on pizza was met with confusion and incredulity; they thought the person calling about pepperoncino was pulling their leg.
But the two poems on the walls of L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele are more declarative. There in Neapolitan dialect is the prevailing Italian wisdom regarding toppings. "With garlic, oil, and oregano, or else with tomato sauce, it seems a walk in the park, but making pizza is no simple task," reads A Marinara. "So don’t go looking for any complicated pizzas which will only hurt your wallet and your stomach," ends A Margherita.
Antonio Pace (left) is more direct. "In Italy we don't use red pepper flakes on pizza," explained the president and founder of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN), a nonprofit organization founded in 1984 dedicated to establishing characteristics of the approved "true Neapolitan pizza." The AVPN doesn’t have an official stance on red pepper flakes. "We believe that as a complementary ingredient, the people who like red pepper flakes should use it as they like, being careful to abide by the rules of gastronomy," said Pace.
So the organization officially has no stance, except for the fact that Pace added that in Italy they don’t use flakes on pizza, and "flakes are not used in the 'sauce.'"
For the sauce, according to the AVPN, you can use fresh tomatoes if they’re the right kind and you can use canned, peeled tomatoes if they’re strained and broken up. Then, depending on whether you’re making a margherita or marinara (with cheese or without), you ladle sauce on and top it with oil, mozzarella, or fior di latte, grated cheese, and basil; or just tomato, oil, oregano, and garlic. You wouldn’t want to overpower the cheese’s nuances would you?
Salt, oil, oregano, basil, and garlic? Yes… depending on the addition of cheese. Pepper flakes? Never. No toppings. As the poets of Da Michele say: no clams, mushrooms, mussels, shrimps, oysters, egg, or… pepper flakes. It would be un-Italian, right? Well, not quite. It’s complicated. It can be hard to pin down memory, poetry, nostalgia, and tradition. Culture changes. Fads in cuisine shift. Even in the mother country it’s difficult to determine whether a way of doing things is "authentic" to the way it was made more than 100 years ago. Were pepper flakes always eschewed in Naples?
"It is not an Italian habit," insists Pace. "Perhaps it was a habit of the first Italians who arrived in America. Many came from Calabria (a region of south Italy) and had the habit of using pepper flakes in their cuisine."
Not an Italian habit, but it came from Calabria, the toe of the boot? It’s been served at the oldest pizzerias in America since the beginning, places started by Italian émigrés!
"Growing up on a farm in Italy, hot peppers were something my family grew and used daily in cooking," noted Dom DeMarco, the beatified Brooklyn pizzaiolo who immigrated to New York in 1959 from Caserta, near Naples. DeMarco, whose Brooklyn pizzeria has inspired blogs, diatribes, and epic how-to-brave-the-crowds primers, is generally considered the city’s most beloved pizza artisan — New York’s hallowed link to Italy.
But the AVPN isn’t alone. This is the prevailing stance on pepper flakes in Italy. Consider a review of Sorelle Capitone, a restaurant in Milan: "Pepperoncino sulla pizza? E da dove arriva questa ricetta?! Non certo da Napoli... Sarebbe come chiedere del gorgonzola da spalmare su una bruschetta!" ("Hot pepper on pizza? Where does this recipe come from?! Certainly not from Naples... It would be like asking for gorgonzola to be spread on top of a bruschetta!")
Still, the tradition had to have a beginning. Is it really reasonable to believe that 4.5 million Italians who immigrated to America from 1876 to 1924, what was then more than a quarter of the population of Italy, either all became infatuated with pepper flakes on pizza in America because they emigrated, or were overruled by a rogue minority of firebrand red pepper flake anarchists?
"Italians often dismiss Italian-American food as corrupted, inauthentic, or nontraditional," offered pizza historian and co-founder of Las Vegas’ Metro Pizza John Arena (right). "They fail to consider that our version of Italian food is often a time capsule of customs lovingly preserved by descendants of immigrants who came here more than 100 years ago. These were people who wanted to maintain a link with the Italy they missed. Anthropologists visit immigrant communities because they are aware of this phenomenon. People in their home country evolve, while immigrants tend to cling to old customs. This is why Albanians who fled to Calabria in the 15th century speak a 500-year-old version of their language incomprehensible in modern Albania. The same thing has happened with food."
But short of time travel, can anyone be sure who was doing what, where, when? Enter Scott Wiener, host of Scott’s Pizza Tours who leads guided visits to New York’s storied pizzerias. While researching the earliest references to pizza as "pies," Scott found an article in the New York Tribune from 1903 about how Italians love hot food. The article, accompanied by a photo of a tenement on Crosby Street festooned with peppers curing in the sun, doesn’t mention a restaurant, and there are misunderstandings (defining pepperoni as hot peppers), but it includes a real shocker of a headline:
Do Fiery Foods Cause Fiery Natures?
Italian Love for Red Peppers May Explain the Combativeness of Spirit of Men of That Nation
"Pie has usually been considered a Yankee dish exclusively, but apparently the Italian has invented a kind of pie. The 'pomidore pizza' or tomato pie, is made in this fashion. Take a lump of dough, and, under a roller, flatten it out until it is only an inch thick. On this scatter tomatoes and season plentifully with powdered red pepper. Then bake the compound. 'Salami pizza,' or bologna pie, is made with this under layer of dough and a combination of tomatoes, cheese, red peppers, and bologna. To use a slang expression, this might be said to be a 'red hot' combination."
Red-hot, indeed. So there is evidence that the use of flakes on pizza was possibly not a corruption of Italian tradition, but the preservation of or adaptation of one. But conversely, could a nation really have forgotten its heritage? If Italians were putting flakes on pizza in Italy, you’d think someone somewhere would have remembered, no?
"The first culinary adaptations were a combination of Southern Italian regional influences — not 'Americanization,'" insists Arena. "My Neapolitan grandmother was trading recipes with my Calabrian grandmother on Mott Street, not with the Irish ladies in Hell's Kitchen. This would have been impossible because they never learned to speak English and they absolutely never left the confines of Little Italy."
So, accept for argument’s sake that Italians might have once used pepper flakes on pizza. Why would customs have changed so dramatically? Some possibilities include discrimination and economics. Southern Italians are still subject to prejudice — they and their food are ridiculed as exaggerated and uncouth, which you could argue has resulted in a homogenization of everything from language to food.
Consider the Facebook group "I terroni che amano il pepperoncino sulla pizza." Terroni, in Italian, is derogatory for someone who doesn't know better or is ignorant. But it’s usually also geographical — northerners use it to talk about southerners like Americans use the term "redneck." So this is "rednecks" who love hot pepper on pizza. (As of press time, there was one member, the administrator — apparently no one is willing to claim the title.)
"It is possible that it is not Italian-American food that got spicier, but that Southern Italian food became milder over time in a self-conscious attempt to emulate Northerners," posited Arena, adding that proud Neapolitans would never admit it.
Another factor? "Neapolitans are all about making money and putting red pepper on the table is an added expense in a pizzeria," said Arena. "Many of the decisions that have formed the so-called 'authentic pizza of Naples' are shaped by profit. For example, the 90-second bake time was born out of a desire to turn tables, not because it produces a better pizza."
Whatever the reasons, Arena will bet that at the beginning of the century, Italians in America were seasoning food, including pizza, with red pepper, and that this was the continuation of a practice brought with them. "While it may not be in vogue amongst some modern-day Italian pizza makers, they were definitely in use in the past."
It’s an assessment that professor Carol Helstosky, author of Pizza: A Global History, seems to agree with. In her research of the history of pizza in Naples, she recalls reports of Neapolitans eating hot peppers (whole raw and dried flakes) to flavor pasta and pizza. The information was recorded in the late 19th century by Italians and foreign visitors like Matilde Serao, a Greek-born Italian journalist.
"Observers often noted the poor in Naples ate food that was stale or bland, so they spiced up foods whenever they could," Helstosky (right) said. "I think when Italians moved to America, as secondary sources like Donna Gabaccia's work on immigrants and food habits argues, they did a lot of home gardening, raising hot peppers in their backyards. So I assume that Neapolitans brought the habit of spicing up pizza with them to the United States. It’s a curious thing, because it seems that in many pizzerias on the East Coast, there was always that jar of hot pepper flakes on the table for the 'Italians' who would come in."
So, maybe Italian-Americans are more Italian than contemporary Italians? Is there a true "Italianness" anyway? To this day in Italy it’s all about campanilismo, regionalism and local identity — with the bell tower, the campanile (traditionally the tallest and most prominent building in town) being the symbol of devotion to even the smallest corner of one’s hometown. You’ll still even find towns with their own dialect.
Italian, Italian-American… what are these flakes, anyway? The chiles in Italy John Mariani noted, diavolicchio, aren’t necessarily in shakers at your local pizzeria."Crushed red pepper can be two pod types in Capsicum annuum," noted Dr. Paul Bosland, co-founder and director of The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. "For the pizza shops, it was cayenne and for other uses it was the New Mexican pod type."
According to Dave Mixon, director of quality for the U.S. Consumer Products Division for McCormick, the peppers you’ll typically find in shakers across America are a blend of three or four peppers in the range of 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units. (The Scoville scale measures the amount of capsaicin in peppers, the compound that makes them hot.) "It could be any number of peppers depending on the availability of the peppers and their heat level — availability from an agricultural standpoint," Mixon explained. "We get a lot of peppers from India, China, and the United States. So in terms of the blend, it’s kind of like wherever we’re getting the peppers from, their availability, and their heat level."
Depending on what companies pepper flakes are being made for, McCormick has to meet a certain level of heat. "You might have to blend in some chiles," said Mixon. "You might include Dundicut peppers, for instance, and mix those in with some Anaheims or Serranos to meet the heat range of your customer’s specs."
And some customers do want that heat. "I have people who pour it on!" said Nick Azzaro of Papa’s. "You can’t even see the pie sometimes!"
Wherever you believe the custom began, for some, eating a slice isn’t an authentic experience without them.
"Since a slice of pizza is essentially the perfect food of independence — the first food you ever bought with your own money without your parents on a Saturday afternoon — it's only right that one should have the ability to modify it to personal perfection," explained pizza guide Scott Wiener (left), who uses flakes on pizza with low-moisture mozzarella. "Searching through the dozens of shakers on the counter at your favorite pizzeria is part of the personalization process, and once you find that pepper flake dispenser it's entirely up to you how much to apply to your slice."
That philosophy disturbs some pizzaiolos, like Jonathan Goldsmith (right) of Chicago’s Spacca Napoli, who’s bothered when his staff offers pepper flakes before a customer requests them. "I have spent many years doing my research and training with regard to Neapolitan pizza and pizze from other regions of Italy," he said. "It is my wish that these pizzas are presented as I have found them on menus or in pizzerias during my travels, or have been lovingly shared with me by someone Italian."
But that’s not a sentiment shared by all pizzaiolos. Dom DeMarco said he doesn’t use pepper flakes on pizza, but he offers peppers in oil at Di Fara. "I will add those to pizza depending on my mood. I will eat those with a spoon at times, too. They have been a very successful addition."
In the accompanying slideshow and series of interviews, DeMarco and more than 15 other of America’s notable pizzaiolos and pizza experts weighed in with their takes on the use of pepper flakes.
Meanwhile, back in Italy, the tradition may be coming full circle. Last year, an article, "Red Hot Chili Peppers. Pizza Come Sport Estremo Concluso Dai Pompieri" was published on a popular Italian food site advertising itself as "nothing of the sacred other than food." The author talks about how hot pepper ruins pizza, though not so much lamenting use of seeds and flakes, but the use of salamis, spreads, and whole peppers. So there’s some movement.
Having settled all that, there’s one last question. Who the hell designed those iconic pepper flake shakers? And why did they think it was a good idea to make holes so small the flakes would always clog?