John Mariani on Pepper Flakes and Pizza

Esquire’s food and wine correspondent discusses where pizza and pepper flakes hooked up

"It is funny to think about the fact that the use of the flakes has become so established, because every cookbook you’ll ever read will say, 'If you’re using the chiles, get those flakes out of there!'"

Did the practice of seasoning pies with red pepper flakes start in America or Italy? New York City or Naples? Was it an Italian-American tradition to scatter flakes liberally up and down their slice or a culture they brought over with them? And what kind of peppers do those flakes even come from anyway? Try finding out. It could take years. Or at least one. And where do you even start? New York or Naples? Who to turn to for insight into where this culinary tradition started? Enter Esquire's food and wine correspondent John Mariani, author of How Italian Food Conquered the World.

In this interivew, part of a series attempting to solve the mystery of pizza and pepper flakes, John Mariani discusses where the practice of using red pepper flakes and other condiments on pizza began, what the pepper flakes actually are, and whether using flakes is necessary to the quintessential New York slice experience.

 

Who did this practice start with? Was it something that first-generation Italian-Americans started doing, something people from the old country did, or something that started with the Americanization of Italian-Americans?
I can’t remember seeing them in Italy and it would be southern Italy where you’d find them if they did serve them, but they don’t naturally come from Italy. They originally came from the Americas and didn’t get to Italy until about the 17th century. You have to understand with the spice trade, it was unimaginable how profitable that could be. If you could strike gold with spices you could become extremely wealthy. Venice was the richest city in Europe when chile peppers came from the Americas and they quickly got into Thai and Chinese cuisine.

 

And in Italy?
It most successfully grew in the southern part of Italy, south of Rome, east of Rome, and in Abruzzo. Abruzzese food is known for its use of chile peppers. They call them little devils —  diavolicchio. Over the last 300 years, they may well have been bred over there. They’re small chile peppers. But as for the pepper flakes, I don’t recall seeing them on tables over there. It seems to be an American invention, which is very highly probably due to American tastes and southern Italians who opened the original pizzerias in America. They were probably the ones who pioneered it and the taste for it. That’s curious enough because where they were opening those pizzerias, they weren’t growing much in the way of chile peppers up there.

 

What about other typically used pizza condiments — where did those traditions start?
Oregano is one of those herbs that you won’t find nearly as much in Italy. They prefer other herbs — not least basil — and dried oregano would be frowned on in any case. But it’s a staple here in every American home, including my own.

 

Which is a truer Italian, or Italian-American experience, using them or not using them?
I don’t think it’s necessarily truer, but it is one of those adaptions of Italian-American cuisine. Something everyone could afford to use, whether it was in linguine with clam sauce, which red pepper flakes are normally added to, or just as an extra condiment. You have to remember that there weren’t a hell of a lot of toppings then as there are today. There were maybe six different options — pepperoni and white clam in New Haven included.

 

It’s been hard to nail down exactly what kind of peppers go into these shakers. Any ideas?
I suspect they’re no hotter than a jalapeño, no hotter than your average chile pepper.

 

Some swear that using flakes is a necessary and quintessential New York slice experience. Where does this come from?
It is funny to think about the fact that the use of the flakes has become so established, because every cookbook you’ll ever read will say, "If you’re using the chiles, get those flakes out of there!" [laughs]. Though they do tame down when they’re heated. But in terms of their use and association with pizza, there is a lot of macho attitude attached to that. And the use of peppers like this, of course, it was once considered a common food.

 

Exactly what type of pepper are we talking about here?
Pepperoncino was what the Italians called the chile pepper. It was easy to grow, unlike many expensive spices. They were used in Roman dishes with clams in which they were cooked in hot oil.

 

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 more from this series of interviews with prominent pizzaiolos and experts on the question of the origins of the use of red pepper flakes on pizza: When Did Pizza Meet Red Pepper Flakes?