When Did Pizza Meet Red Pepper Flakes?

A guide to how, where, when, and with whom this hot affair began
When Did Pizza Meet Red Pepper Flakes?
Arthur Bovino

Sure, they're always together. But where did it all begin?

"Foodie" culture has still not really arrived in Italy the way it has in America, and in-depth analysis of the more seemingly mundane aspects of cuisine is still considered a bit ridiculous by those with a more traditional approach to food. So it’s not surprising that repeated emails in English and Italian went unanswered, and that a call made in Italian about pepper flakes on pizza was met with confusion and incredulity; they thought the person calling about pepperoncino was pulling their leg.

 

Read about the Poetry of Pizza at Da Michele

But the two poems on the walls of L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele are more declarative. There in Neapolitan dialect is the prevailing Italian wisdom regarding toppings. "With garlic, oil, and oregano, or else with tomato sauce, it seems a walk in the park, but making pizza is no simple task," reads A Marinara. "So don’t go looking for any complicated pizzas which will only hurt your wallet and your stomach," ends A Margherita.

Antonio Pace (left) is more direct. "In Italy we don't use red pepper flakes on pizza," explained the president and founder of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN), a nonprofit organization founded in 1984 dedicated to establishing characteristics of the approved "true Neapolitan pizza." The AVPN doesn’t have an official stance on red pepper flakes. "We believe that as a complementary ingredient, the people who like red pepper flakes should use it as they like, being careful to abide by the rules of gastronomy," said Pace.

Read an interview with Antonio Pace of the AVPN

So the organization officially has no stance, except for the fact that Pace added that in Italy they don’t use flakes on pizza, and "flakes are not used in the 'sauce.'"

For the sauce, according to the AVPN, you can use fresh tomatoes if they’re the right kind and you can use canned, peeled tomatoes if they’re strained and broken up. Then, depending on whether you’re making a margherita or marinara (with cheese or without), you ladle sauce on and top it with oil, mozzarella, or fior di latte, grated cheese, and basil; or just tomato, oil, oregano, and garlic. You wouldn’t want to overpower the cheese’s nuances would you?

Salt, oil, oregano, basil, and garlic? Yes… depending on the addition of cheese. Pepper flakes? Never. No toppings. As the poets of Da Michele say: no clams, mushrooms, mussels, shrimps, oysters, egg, or… pepper flakes. It would be un-Italian, right? Well, not quite. It’s complicated. It can be hard to pin down memory, poetry, nostalgia, and tradition. Culture changes. Fads in cuisine shift. Even in the mother country it’s difficult to determine whether a way of doing things is "authentic" to the way it was made more than 100 years ago. Were pepper flakes always eschewed in Naples?

"It is not an Italian habit," insists Pace. "Perhaps it was a habit of the first Italians who arrived in America. Many came from Calabria (a region of south Italy) and had the habit of using pepper flakes in their cuisine."

Not an Italian habit, but it came from Calabria, the toe of the boot? It’s been served at the oldest pizzerias in America since the beginning, places started by Italian émigrés!

"Growing up on a farm in Italy, hot peppers were something my family grew and used daily in cooking," noted Dom DeMarco, the beatified Brooklyn pizzaiolo who immigrated to New York in 1959 from Caserta, near Naples. DeMarco, whose Brooklyn pizzeria has inspired blogs, diatribes, and epic how-to-brave-the-crowds primers, is generally considered the city’s most beloved pizza artisan — New York’s hallowed link to Italy.

Read an interview with Dom DeMarco of Di Fara

But the AVPN isn’t alone. This is the prevailing stance on pepper flakes in Italy. Consider a review of Sorelle Capitone, a restaurant in Milan: "Pepperoncino sulla pizza? E da dove arriva questa ricetta?! Non certo da Napoli... Sarebbe come chiedere del gorgonzola da spalmare su una bruschetta!" ("Hot pepper on pizza? Where does this recipe come from?! Certainly not from Naples... It would be like asking for gorgonzola to be spread on top of a bruschetta!")