Pepper Flakes At Papa's Of Trenton: You Can't Even See The Pie Sometimes

You know the expression, "That guy, he's a character!" Well, it was created for Nick Azzaro, owner of Papa's Tomato Pies in Trenton, N.J. Lombardi's may generally be considered to be "America's first pizza," but as Nick isn't shy about telling you, Papa's Tomato Pies — founded in 1912 — is America's longest continuously owned pizzeria. Ask the affable, garrulous owner how far back his knowledge of Papa's and red pepper flakes goes, and he'll tell you how he's related to the founder while joking that, hey, he could be illegitamate. But Azzaro's joking aside, his institutional knowledge runs deep, making him one of the best pizzaiolos in America to ask about the origins of the tradition of using red pepper flakes on pizza.

Where did this practice of using red pepper flakes start with? What's the right way to eat pizza, with or without flakes? What kind of peppers are they anyway? And how long have they been offered at Papa's? You never know what kind of answers you're going to get from Azzaro. You may even end up discussing mustard pizza. Mustard pizza? One thing's for certain, you won't want to miss this interview with Azzaro, one part of a series attempting to solve the mystery of pizza and pepper flakes.


How far back does your knowledge of Papa's and red pepper flakes being served there go?
My grandfather, my mother's father, was Joe Papa, and he opened in 1912. And my father married my mother, at least I think [laughs], I mean, I could be illegitimate.


Who did this practice of 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 offer red pepper flakes at Papa's?
I have people who pour it on! Are you kidding? You can't even see the pie sometimes! It's odd, but hey, it's like anything else. We've had them on our tables ever since I can remember. We [have them] but we don't use it on our sauce because once you use it you can't take it out. But they disappear from the shakers, believe me.


Where do the flakes come from? What kinds of peppers are they?
Guys used to use them as seeds. They're from the pepperoncini. And they're the seeds of the pepper dried and it's hot. Listen, to each his own. Who am I to judge how hot you want your pizza? I make a mustard pie; I've never heard of it being done anywhere else before. I make four to five a week. I put Gulden's mustard on the dough and then layer on the tomatoes.


Mustard? Where does the mustard go?
I put the mustard on the crust of the pizza. It has to be Gulden's spicy brown mustard.  A guy used to [make it in his] pizzeria down the street and I don't know where he got the idea from, but he ended up closing down, so I don't know if that's an omen, but when he did, some workers came in who used to visit his pizzeria. They asked me to make them a pizza this way, with mustard, then tomatoes, then cheese. You put it in oven and cook it. You ever hear of a Philly pretzel? Well, that's what it tastes like. Everybody's different, Art. That's the answer. That's the solid answer.


OK, Nick, but hold on a sec, let's talk mustard pizza.
We cover it like you'd cover a piece of bread with mustard. The other stuff takes over. It dilutes the flavor of the cheese and the tomatoes and mixes in with it. You can smell it and taste it.


How far back does your knowledge of Papa's and red pepper flakes being served there go?
My grandfather, my mother's father, was Joe Papa, and he opened in 1912. And my father married my mother, at least I think [laughs], I mean, I could be illegitimate. Anyway, Art, my father married my mother who is my grandfather's daughter. She was a Papa. My grandfather died in '63 and my father took over and I worked with my father starting in '63. My father retired in the '80s and I've been running Papa's ever since.

And you claim to be the longest continuously family-owned pizzeria in the country?
That's right. The guy at Lombardi's tried to claim his was America's first pizza. We proved him wrong. On his web sitehe says he bought the place in '84. It was closed for 10 years and he bought it from the original owners. It was on his own web site. I couldn't believe it. He took it off after we questioned it.


But back to the pepper flakes and people's preferences for them...
It's not set in stone. But they're on my tables every day. They've been on my tables ever since I was a kid. Pizza, pepper flakes, it all does come together, but I don't know exactly how or why.

Do you use pepper flakes and what's your reasoning and 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, Art, 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.


Which is a truer New York/New Jersey pizza experience?
I think it's to each his own. There's no binding truth to that. This guy's from Sicily [his pizzaiolo standing next to him] and he's been eating pizza in Sicily and all over, and he speaks Italian like he was born there. Well, actually, he was born there and he's worked there and he just told me he doesn't know. So I don't think thereis an answer. Some people put salt on stuff and some people don't.


How do they add to the experience of eating pizza? 
I guess you could say it's about enhancing flavor. But it's the same thing with cheese — the grated cheese I have on my tables. Some people use it and some don't. One time on the boardwalk, there was this guy, and he had all kinds of condiments that he offered for his customers to pile on their hot dogs and the customers, well, they would put it on the pizza because it was free and it added more volume to their meal. People are strange.

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?