Crushed Red Pepper Flakes on Pizza: A Neapolitan Tradition

Carol Helstosky is an associate professor of history at the University of Denver.

Ask most Italians what they think about the use of red pepper flakes on pizza and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare, or worse, be laughed at. Too nice to do either, Mr. Antonio Pace, the founder of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana simply said, "In Italy we don't use red pepper flakes on pizza." The link between pizza and pepper flakes is, at its kindest, regarded as somewhat of a corruption of a Calabrian culinary tradition started in America. But professor Carol Helstosky, author of Pizza: A Global History, says that there’s some evidence to suggest that even if current prevailing tastes in Italy are anti-flake, that wasn’t always the case, and it’s possible that the tradition did actually begin in Italy, not with Italian-Americans in the country’s Little Italy’s.

Where did this relationship begin? How did the tradition take hold?  In this interview, part of a series attempting to solve the mystery of pizza and pepper flakes, professor Helstosky discusses reports of Neapolitans eating hot peppers and immigrant food habits.

 

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.

 

Red pepper flakes on pizza… in Naples? Italians won’t believe it! What’s the story behind this?
This was a very inexpensive way to bring flavor to plain food. Observers often noted the poor in Naples ate food that was stale or bland, so they spiced up foods whenever they could. Pizza was sold street-side or from bakeries, there were only a few "pizzerias" where you could go and eat at a table or at a counter. I know that the pasta vendors who sold maccheroni street-side offered hot pepper and cheese to go with the pasta. Perhaps the same thing happened with street-side pizza vendors, though to be honest, I have not come across any written documentation that notes it.

 

So you think this was a tradition brought to America?
I think that when Italians moved to the United States, 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 (where I grew up), there was always that jar of hot pepper flakes on the table for the "Italians" (which I think meant Italian-Americans) who would come in to eat. But when I lived in Italy, and I ate pizza a lot, I didn't see the jars out there on tables!

 

What about your personal preference? 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 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?