Tracking Italian-American Culinary Traditions to the Old Country

Pizza historian and co-founder of Las Vegas’ Metro Pizza, examines the origins of the link between red pepper flakes and pizza

John Arena claims the tradition of using red pepper flakes on pizza started in Italy, not America.

Who did the practice of using red pepper flakes on pizza start with? Was it something that Italians did in the old country? And if so, where? Or was it a tradition that first-generation Italian-Americans began? Trying to track down the origins of an Italian culinary tradition isn't impossible, but it sure can be frustrating.

As pizza historian and co-founder of Las Vegas’ Metro Pizza John Arena notes, "it isn't always easy to find documentation on the subject of Italian customs as they evolved in America." The culture is often a victim to oral tradition, and it can take quite a bit of work to get reliable information from modern-day Italians. Lucky then, to have been introduced via Peter Reinhart, author of American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, to John Arena. His link to Italian traditions and Italian-American bread baking starts with his father, who he said used to shovel coal into the oven in the basement at the renowned Parisi Bakery in New York City in the 1930's.

In this interivew, part of a series attempting to solve the mystery of pizza and pepper flakes, pizza historian and co-founder of Las Vegas’ Metro Pizza John Arena discusses the origins of the tradition of using red pepper flakes on pizza in a fantastic, eloquent rant.


Red pepper flakes and pizza — was this combination something that began in Italy or America? And why if it was a tradition that began there has it become lost and so looked down upon today?
Modern Italians often dismiss Italian-American food as corrupted, inauthentic, or nontraditional. They fail to consider that our version of Italian food is often a time capsule of customs lovingly preserved by descendants of immigrants who came here more than 100 years ago. These were people who wanted to maintain a link with the Italy they missed. Anthropologists visit immigrant communities because they are aware of this phenomenon. People in their home country evolve, while immigrants tend to cling to old customs. This is why Albanians who fled to Calabria in the 15th century speak a 500-year-old version of their language incomprehensible in modern Albania. The same thing has happened with food.

Our version of Italian food is influenced by the customs of 19th- and early 20th-century Italians. Follow this link to a very politically incorrect article sent to me by Scott Wiener of Scott's Pizza Tours. The newspaper article, "Do Fiery Foods Cause Fiery Natures?"  published by the New-York Tribunein 1903, clearly supports the fact that Neapolitans were drying and using hot peppers frequently. Keep in mind this was at a time when Italian immigrants were not mingling with Americans or altering their food for them. This was the way they cooked for themselves.

In New York's Little Italy, there were several restaurants that featured only four items: raw clams, fried shrimp, calamari, and scungilli. They were all served with a fiery hot sauce made with anchovy, hot pepper, and lots of olive oil. They were not served with modern day "diavalo" or "arrabbiata" sauces but with a richer, smooth sauce. These types of restaurants do not exist in modern Naples, but invariably places such as "Little Charlie’s" and "Vincent’s" were owned by Neapolitans, and in the early 1900's, were frequented only by neighborhood residents who considered it a badge of honor to be able to eat the hottest versions of the sauce.

In a pre-refrigeration world where produce was still highly seasonal and regional, anything that could be dried or preserved to retain its flavor was highly prized. This is why oregano was found on pizza all year-round while until the modern era basil was not. Now of course, the modern Neapolitans sometimes claim that oregano on pizza is inauthentic. But there are references to such pizzas from nearly 150 years ago.