Red Pepper Flakes Served at Lombardi’s From the Start
How did crushed red pepper get hitched with pizza anyway?
Talk about the origins of pizza and inevitably the conversation turns to Gennaro Lombardi, who the city of New York granted the first license to bake pizza. It all began in 1905 at Lombardi's, a grocery store that became a pizzeria that became a high-end Italian restaurant that was forced to shutter in 1984 when it couldn't withstand the economic downturn of the '80s.
But the traditions of the original live on at the reincarnation opened nearby by Gennaro Lombardi's grandson Jerry and his childhood friend John Brescio. So when seeking out the origins of a tradition associated with pizza, in this case, the use of red pepper flakes, it's hard to think of many other places whose players know more.
In this interivew, part of a series attempting to solve the mystery of pizza and pepper flakes, the current owner of Lombardi's, John Brescio, talks about how far back the link between pizza and red pepper flakes go at the famed pizzeria, whether it was a tradition begun by Italians or Italian-Americans, and what the truer pizza experience is: with or without flakes.
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.
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?
It started in Italy; Italian restaurants and Italian families would use it, only in a different form from today. It was purchased dry and would be hand crumbled into a small stainless steel bowl that was actually designed for it. The bowl came with a very small spoon, smaller than a teaspoon. Along with cheese, it was a staple of the Italian table. The pepper was very hot, hotter than today's standard peppers, and used in small quantities. It added a kick to food. At that point in time, spices were everything, a much bigger deal than today; they were used to enhance and add flavor and to doctor up inferior food products.
Do you personally 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.
How do they add to the experience of eating pizza?
They give a plain pie a kick.
Which is a truer Italian experience, with or without?
Which is a truer American experience, with or without?
Not using them as much.
What's your feeling about people who don't use flakes?
It’s all about individual taste. If they’re happy, I’m happy either way.
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?