Why is it called pepperoni pizza (when peppers [seemingly] have nothing to do with it)?

This just in: Vietti winemaker Luca Currado and my friend and client Tony Vallone will be presenting Luca’s family’s wines on January 18, 2017 at Tony’s in Houston. I’ll be there. Please join me. It’s going to be a night to remember, for sure.

best-pepperoni-pizzaNew York-style pizza and pepperoni pizza in particular are among my greatest guilty pleasures.

In the decade that I lived and played music in New York City, I came to learn all the best spots for late-night Manhattan slices as my band’s drummer and I lugged our gear back uptown from our downtown gigs. Oh man, who doesn’t relish a hot slice at 2 a.m. after a night of drinking flat beer and strumming a Telecaster???!!!

best-pepperoni-pizza-new-york-sliceToday, the question of pizza and the existential question of pepperoni or regular? play a new and outsized dialectical role in my life: our youngest daughter prefers “cheese” while our oldest waivers between her allegiances to pepperoni and cheese.

The joy, alone, in hearing the word pepperoni uttered by a child, with its trochaic mellifluence, is truly priceless, btw: peh-peh-ROOOOOOH-nee.

best-pizzeria-new-yorkMy parental pondering of pepperoni pizza led me recently to reflect on the origin of the nomenclature. After all, in Italian, peperoni denotes what we call bell peppers in English. If you ordered a pizza ai pep[p]eroni in Italy, they’d bring you a pizza with bell peppers and not with thinly sliced, slightly spicy sausage.

A Google search prompted by my curiosity led me to a lovely 2011 article by Julia Moskin for the New York Times (our president-elect’s favorite paper!), “Pepperoni: On Top.”

In it she writes:

What, exactly, is pepperoni? It is an air-dried spicy sausage with a few distinctive characteristics: it is fine-grained, lightly smoky, bright red and relatively soft. But one thing it is not: Italian.

“Purely an Italian-American creation, like chicken Parmesan,” said John Mariani, a food writer and historian who has just published a book with the modest title: “How Italian Food Conquered the World.” “Peperoni” is the Italian word for large peppers, as in bell peppers, and there is no Italian salami called by that name, though some salamis from Calabria and Apulia are similarly spicy and flushed red with dried chilies. The first reference to pepperoni in print is from 1919, Mr. Mariani said, the period when pizzerias and Italian butcher shops began to flourish here.

Evidently, the sausage name is a corruption of the Italian peperoncino, as in the little peppers used to impart heat and color to the salami.

pizza-and-champagne-wine-pairingDigging a little deeper into my philological neuroses, I discovered that the earliest known printed reference to pep[p]eroni sausage actually dates back to 1888 (the year Nietzsche began to lose his mind) in the Times of London.

This early mention of pepperoni in a list of types of dried sausage leads me to believe that pepperoni might not be an Italian-American invention but rather a food product that is Italo-Britannic in origin (something that is highly plausible).

But I found an even more significant and telling mention in the United States government Yearbook of Agriculture for 1894 (published by the U.S. Government Printing Office), a mention that appears some 25 years before Mariani’s editio princeps.

The author of the entry for sausage wrote the following:

A mealtime and snacktime favorite of millions of Americans, sausages include a wide assortment of seasoned and processed meat products… Some sausages are dried during processing. Dried sausages like pepperoni, thuringer, and dry salmi are quite firm, very flavorful, and normally do not need to be refrigerated.

Herein lies the rub, as it were. Pizza, as we knew it in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s before the pseudo-Neapolitan pizza craze of the 2000s, probably emerged during the “Me” era (that’s the 1970s for you millennials). We think of pizza as an ancient food form. And it is. But the pizza of the 1960s probably didn’t resemble the pizzas pictured in this post, for example. It was the rise of canned tomatoes and processed cheese in the post-war boom of the 1960s that probably made pizza as-we-knew-it possible in the decades that followed.

The passage from the 1894 yearbook reveals that pepperoni sausage was already popular (at snacktimes and mealtimes) in the U.S. by the dawn of the 19th century, long before the great waves of Italian immigration began to take shape in north America. And its popularity was probably owed in some measure to the fact that it didn’t require refrigeration.

Ding! Ding! Ding! That’s probably why it became such a popular pizza topping: it was easy and inexpensive to store.

Regardless of its origins and its linguistic and cultural disconnect, pepperoni pizza is one of America’s great gifts to the world imho. There’s just nothing like a late-night slice after a gig and there’s nothing like the smile on a child’s face as she contemplates: cheese or pepperoni?

8 thoughts on “Why is it called pepperoni pizza (when peppers [seemingly] have nothing to do with it)?

    • drunken cyclist, the plain cheese pizza is the Zen of pizza. It is the standard which one uses to compare pizzas. How else to truly judge the Holy Trinity of crust, cheese, and sauce, other than in their unadorned and uncluttered state? From Jennie’s of Bridgeport, CT, the pizza of my childhood, the ultimate of pizza, to the beachside pizza I had in Rio with crust like cardboard and sauce you squeezed from a bottle like ketchup (which it probably was), one must come back to the plain, the plain. And your child’s taste buds will evolve. :)

  1. Perhaps from Italy I can give you some more info: if you want the same pizza here in Italy you should ask for a “Diavola” [something like “devilish” in italian and it has black olives as topping as well] or a “pizza con salame piccante” but obviously, instead of the american pepperoni sausage the topping will be what we call “salame piccante” [about the same in my own experience].
    nice post!

  2. Hi Do, I am doing some research on pizza and stumbled on this article. Very interesting, thank you. One question though: according to Wikipedia the mass immigration of Italians began in 1890. You don’t think that was a factor? I ask because it does seem odd that they chose an Italian-ish name fore the product – so it seems like an offshoot of traditional Italian salame.

  3. Italy here, pizza was called Pinsa from ancient Romans, that was prepared with infinite kinds of toppings. In the 19th century a guy prepared A pizza with tomato for the queen Margherita, who was the biggest producer of tomatoes in Italy. And he put mozzarella on it, because he was from Naples. Tomatoes spreads among Italy in 17th century, before that they were unknown, due the American origins. We had and still have pizza with any kind of meat, mostly pork, salami, prosciutto, lonza, etc etc. It can be white or red. Regular, or cheese pizza doesn’t mean anything in Italy,, maybe the Waiter will understand, but the meaning of the sentence have no sense: you have classics pizzas (Margherita, marinara, funghi etc), or your choice of your favorite topping. We have more than 400 classic an historical cheeses, and many recipes for pizza and cheese in any kind and combination. Pizza have two natures: one is very creative the other really historical an technical. Regular have no sense in this optic.
    In the end if you ask a pizza peperoni they will give you a pizza with peppers (if they don’t know American costumes), you can ask a pizza with hot salami and extra mozzarella, and you will get what you want.
    BTW your historical research was very nice I really appreciated. Finally somebody explained why this strange mistake was done.

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