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?

Whatever the reasons, Arena will bet that at the beginning of the century, Italians in America were seasoning food, including pizza, with red pepper, and that this was the continuation of a practice brought with them. "While it may not be in vogue amongst some modern-day Italian pizza makers, they were definitely in use in the past."

It’s an assessment that professor Carol Helstosky, author of Pizza: A Global History, seems to agree with. In her research of the history of pizza in Naples, she recalls reports of Neapolitans eating hot peppers (whole raw and dried flakes) to flavor pasta and pizza. The information was recorded in the late 19th century by Italians and foreign visitors like Matilde Serao, a Greek-born Italian journalist.

"Observers often noted the poor in Naples ate food that was stale or bland, so they spiced up foods whenever they could," Helstosky (right) said. "I think when Italians moved to America, as secondary sources like Donna Gabaccia's work on immigrants and food habits argues, they did a lot of home gardening, raising hot peppers in their backyards. So I assume that Neapolitans brought the habit of spicing up pizza with them to the United States. It’s a curious thing, because it seems that in many pizzerias on the East Coast, there was always that jar of hot pepper flakes on the table for the 'Italians' who would come in."

Read an interview with professor Carol Helstosky

So, maybe Italian-Americans are more Italian than contemporary Italians? Is there a true "Italianness" anyway? To this day in Italy it’s all about campanilismo, regionalism and local identity — with the bell tower, the campanile (traditionally the tallest and most prominent building in town) being the symbol of devotion to even the smallest corner of one’s hometown. You’ll still even find towns with their own dialect.

Italian, Italian-American… what are these flakes, anyway? The chiles in Italy John Mariani noted, diavolicchio, aren’t necessarily in shakers at your local pizzeria."Crushed red pepper can be two pod types in Capsicum annuum," noted Dr. Paul Bosland, co-founder and director of The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. "For the pizza shops, it was cayenne and for other uses it was the New Mexican pod type."

According to Dave Mixon, director of quality for the U.S. Consumer Products Division for McCormick, the peppers you’ll typically find in shakers across America are a blend of three or four peppers in the range of 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units. (The Scoville scale measures the amount of capsaicin in peppers, the compound that makes them hot.) "It could be any number of peppers depending on the availability of the peppers and their heat level — availability from an agricultural standpoint," Mixon explained. "We get a lot of peppers from India, China, and the United States. So in terms of the blend, it’s kind of like wherever we’re getting the peppers from, their availability, and their heat level."

Read an interview with Dave Mixon of McCormick

Depending on what companies pepper flakes are being made for, McCormick has to meet a certain level of heat. "You might have to blend in some chiles," said Mixon. "You might include Dundicut peppers, for instance, and mix those in with some Anaheims or Serranos to meet the heat range of your customer’s specs."

And some customers do want that heat. "I have people who pour it on!" said Nick Azzaro of Papa’s. "You can’t even see the pie sometimes!"

Wherever you believe the custom began, for some, eating a slice isn’t an authentic experience without them.