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?

Still, the tradition had to have a beginning. Is it really reasonable to believe that 4.5 million Italians who immigrated to America from 1876 to 1924, what was then more than a quarter of the population of Italy, either all became infatuated with pepper flakes on pizza in America because they emigrated, or were overruled by a rogue minority of firebrand red pepper flake anarchists?

"Italians often dismiss Italian-American food as corrupted, inauthentic, or nontraditional," offered pizza historian and co-founder of Las Vegas’ Metro Pizza John Arena (right). "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."

Read an interview with John Arena of Metro Pizza

But short of time travel, can anyone be sure who was doing what, where, when? Enter Scott Wiener, host of Scott’s Pizza Tours who leads guided visits to New York’s storied pizzerias. While researching the earliest references to pizza as "pies," Scott found an article in the New York Tribune from 1903 about how Italians love hot food. The article, accompanied by a photo of a tenement on Crosby Street festooned with peppers curing in the sun, doesn’t mention a restaurant, and there are misunderstandings (defining pepperoni as hot peppers), but it includes a real shocker of a headline:

Do Fiery Foods Cause Fiery Natures?

Italian Love for Red Peppers May Explain the Combativeness of Spirit of Men of That Nation

"Pie has usually been considered a Yankee dish exclusively, but apparently the Italian has invented a kind of pie. The 'pomidore pizza' or tomato pie, is made in this fashion. Take a lump of dough, and, under a roller, flatten it out until it is only an inch thick. On this scatter tomatoes and season plentifully with powdered red pepper. Then bake the compound. 'Salami pizza,' or bologna pie, is made with this under layer of dough and a combination of tomatoes, cheese, red peppers, and bologna. To use a slang expression, this might be said to be a 'red hot' combination."

Red-hot, indeed. So there is evidence that the use of flakes on pizza was possibly not a corruption of Italian tradition, but the preservation of or adaptation of one. But conversely, could a nation really have forgotten its heritage? If Italians were putting flakes on pizza in Italy, you’d think someone somewhere would have remembered, no?

"The first culinary adaptations were a combination of Southern Italian regional influences — not 'Americanization,'" insists Arena. "My Neapolitan grandmother was trading recipes with my Calabrian grandmother on Mott Street, not with the Irish ladies in Hell's Kitchen. This would have been impossible because they never learned to speak English and they absolutely never left the confines of Little Italy."

So, accept for argument’s sake that Italians might have once used pepper flakes on pizza. Why would customs have changed so dramatically? Some possibilities include discrimination and economics. Southern Italians are still subject to prejudice — they and their food are ridiculed as exaggerated and uncouth, which you could argue has resulted in a homogenization of everything from language to food.

Consider the Facebook group "I terroni che amano il pepperoncino sulla pizza." Terroni, in Italian, is derogatory for someone who doesn't know better or is ignorant. But it’s usually also geographical — northerners use it to talk about southerners like Americans use the term "redneck." So this is "rednecks" who love hot pepper on pizza. (As of press time, there was one member, the administrator — apparently no one is willing to claim the title.)

"It is possible that it is not Italian-American food that got spicier, but that Southern Italian food became milder over time in a self-conscious attempt to emulate Northerners," posited Arena, adding that proud Neapolitans would never admit it.

Another factor? "Neapolitans are all about making money and putting red pepper on the table is an added expense in a pizzeria," said Arena. "Many of the decisions that have formed the so-called 'authentic pizza of Naples' are shaped by profit. For example, the 90-second bake time was born out of a desire to turn tables, not because it produces a better pizza."