Pepper Flakes: Spice as Independence

Scott Wiener, host of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York, talks toppers and the beauty of pizza

"It's extremely 'New York' to add some form of 'topper,'" says Scott Wiener.

Some people like pizza. They like toppings, enjoy a slice once in a while, and have a go-to spot. Some people love pizza. They'll make outerborough pilgrimmages in New York City; hit the latest Italian imports; and debate the merits of coal, wood, and gas ovens. Then there's the class of pizza folk who whether or not they make it for a living, live pizza. Scott Wiener is one of those people.

For three years he's made it his mission to follow his pizza passion — getting his New York City Sightseeing Guide license, draining his savings, and launching Scott's Pizza Tours, guided tours of New York City's great pizzerias. But Wiener's quest for pizza knowledge doesn't stop there. The man is somewhat of a pizza research fanatic. Spending hours trying to find the first references to pizza as pies. Wiener came across one of the earliest documentations of the use of red pepper flakes on pizza — in 1903.

Given Wiener's frequent visits to at least 25 of the city's most storied pizzerias, who better to ask about what makes for a truer New York City slice experience when it comes to pepper flakes: with or without? In this interivew, part of a series attempting to solve the mystery of pizza and pepper flakes, Wiener discusses how the addition of "toppers" like red pepper flakes represents independence, gives his own personal preference, and divulges what he thinks of people who don't use flakes.


Do you personally use red pepper 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. 


What's your reasoning and feeling about using red pepper flakes on your pizza?
Red pepper flakes add dimension to a slice. 


How do red pepper flakes add to the experience of eating pizza?
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. The act of searching through the dozens of shakers on the counter at your favorite pizzeria is part of the personalization process, and once you find that pepper flake dispenser it's entirely up to you how much to apply to your slice and how to do it. Nobody teaches this in school, it's something you develop yourself. 


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. It's common to see someone step into a pizzeria for the first time and add two to three toppers before even tasting the slice. It's just part of the routine. 


If you're pro-flake, do you have any feelings about people who don't use them?
Some people like the heat, some don't. It's all OK by me. That's the beauty of pizza. 

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?