The Non-Italian Origins Of Pepperoni Pizza

If you were to ask a group of children in a typical North American classroom to each draw a picture of a pizza, chances are you'd wind up with variations on the same pepperoni pie. The topping is simple enough to satisfy a nostalgic craving, yet complex enough in flavor to delight us each time, making it an essential mainstay on pizza-parlor menus across the U.S. and beyond. 

Despite recent trend forecasts that predict the rise of pickle pizza in 2023, classic pepperoni continually ranks as a universal favorite for meat eaters. In 2021, Google search data rendered by Vivid Maps showed that pepperoni is the most popular pizza topping in 12 states, including Alaska and Pennsylvania.

With National Pizza Day upon us on February 9, now is as good a time as any to slice into the history of pepperoni pizza. If you assumed the topping was invented by the proprietor of a family-run restaurant in Naples, think again. Like many beloved red-sauce staples, pepperoni is more American than it is Italian.  

In Italian, 'peperoni' means bell peppers, not cured meat

John Mariani, the author of "How Italian Food Conquered the World," maintains that pepperoni pizza as Italian as chicken parmesan — meaning, it's not Italian at all. In fact, Mariani told The New York Times that the word pepperoni (at least with the spelling we use in the U.S.) doesn't even exist in the Bel Paese. The Italian word "peperoni" actually refers to bell peppers.

Pepperoni pizza, like so many other dishes that are often mistaken as purely Italian, including spaghetti and meatballs and the aforementioned chicken parmesan, was invented by Italian immigrants in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Mariani traces the first print appearance of the dish to a 1919 ad for an Italian-owned butcher shop in New York. It wasn't until 1944, however, that The Times first made mention of the word "pizza." Three years later, the paper wrote that "pizza could be as popular a snack as the hamburger if Americans only knew more about it." If only!

What is pepperoni, anyway?

Sliced pepperoni may look similar to traditional Italian salami, but you won't find it at an Italian butcher shop. Science Direct defines it as "a raw sausage made from beef and pork or pork only," adding that pepperoni made entirely from beef must be classified as "beef pepperoni." To make it, processors cut semi-frozen meat in a bowl cutter before adding salt and nitrites, along with a blend of spices (including paprika, which accounts for its brick-red color), starter cultures, and additives.

The salami you'll find in Italy might contain other meat besides beef and pork. If you watched Jerzy Skolimowski's Oscar-nominated film "EO," you know that some types of the cured product contain donkey meat, which, we imagine, put some viewers off the food for good. A breakdown of salami on the World Charcuterie Awards website makes no mention of pepperoni, though many consider it a technical variety of salami. 

Whichever way you slice it, pepperoni makes a great pizza topping. Just don't call it Italian.