Pizza and Pepper Flakes: The Experts

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John Brescio, Owner of Lombardi’s, America’s "First Pizza" (New York City)

Lombardi’s

Do you know if pepper flakes were served at Lombardi's when it first opened, or when they started being offered there?  
They have been around since the beginning. We have 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.

Do you use red pepper flakes on your pizza? 
No, I don't. I am a pizza purist. They take away from the pizza flavor and would make it harder, if not impossible, to taste the cheese and sauce. It actually became big in the '50s when flakes in the shaker became a blended, less expensive, milder option to the hand crushed version, during the early years of the pizza revolution in the United States. It gave a kick to an otherwise dull plain cheese pizza slice and was a standard on the counter of all pizza shops.

Read an interview with John Brescio, Red Pepper Flakes Served at Lombardi’s From the Start.

Dom DeMarco, Di Fara (Midwood, Brooklyn)

Dom DeMarco

Do you use red pepper flakes?
I use it in soups and in some pastas made with a garlic and oil base. Red pepper flakes are a nice additive to pizza for those who acquire the taste for added spice. I do not use them on my own pizza.

You don’t offer them at Di Fara, right? You have marinated peppers instead. What's your reasoning and feeling about them and how they contribute to the experience of eating pizza?
The peppers on the counter are a delicious sliced pepper in olive oil. I will add those to pizza depending on my mood.

Read an interview with Dom DeMarco on Red Pepper Flakes: 'It Started in Italy'

John Mariani, Food and Drink Correspondent for Esquire

John Mariani

Do you use red pepper flakes and what's your reasoning and feeling about them and how they contribute to the experience of eating pizza?
I tend to use them only if the pizza or the pasta dish is a little bland to my taste. The flakes are commonly used on spaghetti con vongole, but I prefer to steep dried whole chiles in the garlic and oil then to add the flakes later.
 
Do you have any feelings about people who do or don't use them?

Nah, to each his own.

Read a full interview with John Mariani On Pepper Flakes and Pizza.

Nick Azzaro, Owner Papa's Tomato Pies (Trenton, N.J.)

Papa's Tomato Pies

Who did using red pepper flakes start with?
It’s a hard question, I mean, why people use it. They don’t use really hot stuff in Italy. Spain does, but Italians don’t really use that much hot stuff. I don’t really use the red pepper flakes. I have them on the tables, and I have to refill them, but I can’t really answer the question "How come?" I don’t think there is a solid answer.

Do you use pepper flakes and what's your feeling about them and how they contribute to the pizza experience?
Me? No I don’t like hot stuff at all! But like I said, I send people out to the tables with their pizza and some of them use it like it was sugar in their coffee and some people never do it. It’s like vanilla ice cream. Some people like chocolate, some people like vanilla. I like vanilla and I wouldn’t eat any other flavor.

Read an interview with Nick Azzaro, Pepper Flakes at Papa’s of Trenton: You Can’t Even See the Pie Sometimes.

Antonio Pace, Founder and President of Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana

AVPN

Do you use red pepper flakes on your pizza?
I don't like to put red pepper flakes on my pizza.

 

In New York City, it seems as though pepper flakes have become synonymous with the experience of eating a slice. Any comment on this tradition?
As with many other culinary traditions in America, this is a corruption of the culinary traditions imported by the first Italians who emigrated there. But it now seems as though when it comes to pizza in the United States, times are changing. These corrupted culinary traditions are being corrected, and people have started to follow the true tradition of making Neapolitan pizza.

Read an interview with Antonio Pace: Real Italians Don’t Use Red Pepper Flakes.

Scott Wiener, Scott's Pizza Tours (New York City)

Scott's Pizza Tours

Do you use flakes on your pizza?
I only really use pepper flakes on pizza with low-moisture mozzarella. Fresh mozzarella is too soft a flavor so I wouldn't want anything to get in its way.

How do flakes add to the pizza experience?
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.

Which is a truer experience when it comes to eating a slice in New York City, with or without?
Pepper flakes are entirely up to the user, but it's extremely "New York" to add some form of "topper" (I call shaker goods "toppers" as opposed to "toppings" like pepperoni and mushrooms) because New Yorkers, with their strong opinions, often think they could improve on anything.

Read an interview with Scott Wiener, Pepper Flakes: Spice As Independence.

Professor Carol Helstosky, Author of Pizza: A Global History

Carol Helstosky

Do you have any insight into where the tradition of the use of red pepper flakes with pizza originated?
I recall in researching pizza history in Naples that there were numerous reports of Neapolitans eating hot peppers (so, dried flakes, whole raw peppers, etc.) to flavor pasta and pizza. The information was recorded by foreign visitors as well as Italians like Matilde Serao, who traveled to Naples to observe the customs there. This would go along with Neapolitans flavoring rather plain (crust and chopped tomatoes) pizza with anchovies and assorted herbs and whatever else they could get their hands on.

Flakes or no flakes?
I do really like red pepper flakes on pizza with cheese.  I sometimes like it on pizza with olives, but I do not usually put red pepper flakes on any other kind of pizza with toppings! I really love the way red pepper flakes taste on New York style pizza slices.

Read an interview with Professor Helstosky: Crushed Red Pepper Flakes on Pizza: A Neapolitan Tradition.

Jim Lahey, Co. (New York City)

Arthur Bovino

Do you use red pepper flakes on your pizza and what do you think about people who don’t?
I love spicy food. I love chiles. I believe they awaken the palate and are a great contrast between sweet and salty. The addition of this spice provides a beautiful contrast to dishes. Those who have dietary issues with chiles should certainly avoid them. And I use chile flakes where I feel they’ll enhance flavor in a dish.

Ken Martin, Co-Owner of Colony Grill (Fairfield, Conn.)

Colony Grill

Do you offer red pepper flakes? Do you think theres a truer pizza experience, using them or not using them?
We do have shakers. Personally, I am a hot oil guy, and I would think my partners are too, though, you'd have to ask them. We offer pepper flakes on the tables but do not cook with them. We feel customers can decide what they enjoy. We don't judge on spice!

John Arena, Pizza historian, Co-Founder of Metro Pizza (Las Vegas)

Metro Pizza

Do you use red pepper flakes on your pizza?
Yes, I do use red pepper on pizza, particularly pizza with seafood. I am also not adverse to pairing cheese with seafood, a common taboo that is observed in Naples but ignored in other parts of Italy. Bring on the heat!

Read an interview with John Arena: Tracking Italian-American Culinary Traditions to the Old Country.

Peter Reinhart, Baking Instructor at Johnson & Wales University, Author of American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza

Flickr/NAIT

Do you use red pepper flakes on your pizza?
Always, since childhood! And I totally agree about cheese and seafood. Whoever came up with that taboo? It's another example of how so-called "rules" can often get in the way. Thats one of my friend and pizza expert John Arenas favorite rants, as well as mine, by the way. The only rule I believe in is "the flavor rule," which is: Flavor rules!

Jonathan Goldsmith, Spacca Napoli (Chicago)

Spacca Napoli

Do you use red pepper flakes and what's your feeling about them and how they contribute to the experience of eating pizza?
We have pizzas that have red pepper flakes (pepperoncino) as part of their "toppings."

Do you offer red pepper flakes at Spacca Napoli?
I do not place red pepper flakes on the table, nor oregano, nor olive oil infused with red pepper flakes. I am somewhat bothered when I hear my waitstaff offer these items before they are requested. I have spent many years doing my research and training with regard to Neapolitan pizza and pizze from other regions of Italy. 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. That being said, there is a saying in Latin that must not be disregarded: "De gustibus non dispandium est."

Read an interview with Jonathan Goldsmith, Waiters Shouldn’t Serve Red Pepper Flakes Before They're Asked.

 

Dave Mixon, Director of Quality for U.S. Consumer Products Division for McCormick

itemmaster

So not only are pepper flakes not just from one pepper, but they usually contain more than one kind?
Generally, it’s a blend of three or four peppers in the range of 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units. It could be any number of peppers depending on the availability of the peppers and their heat level — availability from an agricultural standpoint. 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. If we can source from India, where they have multiple varieties, they can do the blending where the raw materials are processed.

Read an interview with Dave Mixon, What Are Crushed Red Pepper Flakes?

Johanne Killeen and George Germon, Al Forno (Providence, R.I.)

Johanne Killeen & George Germon

Do you use red pepper flakes on your pizza?
We love spicy food and offer red pepper flakes at Al Forno and our newer restaurant TINI. Many of our customers request the flakes with their pizza or pasta. In Italy, you are more apt to see ground red pepper (pepperoncino) or spicy pepper oil.

Jeff Michaud, Osteria (Philadelphia)

Flickr/sanberdoo

Do you use red pepper flakes on your pizza?
I do use red chile flakes for my own pizza.But when making pizza for others I like to use flakes depending on which ingredients I put on the pizza.We have an octopus pizza with smoked mozzarella and chile flakes.I feel the spice goes nicely with the smokiness of the cheese and the crispiness and ocean flavor of the octopus. It all depends on the combination of ingredients. Chile flakes go so well with seafood so I put them on every time.

Which is a truer experience? Using them or not? And what do you think of people who dont?
A true experience is when the flavors meld together and one is no more prominent than the other. As far as having feelings about people who dont use them, its all a matter of opinion and taste.A good chef knows how to use them properly.

Michele Iuliano, Luzzo (New York City)

Luzzo

Do you use red pepper flakes and what's your reasoning and feeling about them and how they contribute to the experience of eating pizza?
Occasionally I do use pepperoncini on my pizza. In fact, at Luzzo’s we make red pepper-infused olive oil.  It’s frequently requested by our clients. Pepperoncino adds a bit of a kick that tends to initially shock the palate — especially when used in excess. Some people love the heat.

Read an interview with Michele Iuzzo, Pizza and Pepper Flakes: 'Only Natural'

Spike Mendelsohn, We, The Pizza (Washington, D.C.)

Arthur Bovino

Do you use red pepper flakes on your pizza and what do you think about people who dont?
Yes, I use them in many different cuisines. When it comes to pizza, I just sprinkle them on top. They're widely popular and if you enjoyed spicy foods growing up, you always seem to go back to using them. I do believe in toasting them a bit to strengthen the power. People who dont use chile flakes are really just flakes when it comes to eating pizza.