Why Italians Don't Eat Pepperoni on Their Pizza (Or At All)
Pepperoni is America’s favourite pizza topping and a growing trend. One country that continues to rebuff its relentless march to world domination? Italy.
Why? First, as most Italians know, pepperoni isn’t Italian. It’s considered an Italian-American invention, often attributed to originating sometime in the early 20th century. Say “pepperoni” to Italians and most immediately hear “peperoni,” which, without the extra “p,” means bell peppers in Italian.
While visually it’s hard to confuse the cured, spicy salami (made with pork and beef) with the fruit from the capsicum family, their broadly similar tastes may explain how the sausage came to be named. According to food historian and author John F. Mariani of “How Italian Food Conquered the World,” “pepperoni” was coined by Italian-Americans who, when eating experiencing the spicy sausage, were reminded of peperoncini, the hot and sweet Calabrian chilli pepper from southern Italy.
Still, with pepperoni’s strong ties to Italy from birth, the increase in viral food trends, and the ever-growing popularity of pizza in general, one might think pepperoni would have caught on in Italy. But it hasn’t, which begs the question: Why don’t Italians eat pepperoni on pizza?
The simple answer? They don’t need it.
America’s most popular pizza topping gets little attention from Italians, who, as usual when it comes to food, have a seemingly infinite variety of regional products in every food category. Dried sausage is no exception, there’s spianata, ventricina, soppressata, crespone, Napoletano and Norcia, just to name a few. Every region in Italy can boast about local production of some kind of salumi, many of which (like the aforementioned) feature spices and peppers.
Until recently, you wouldn’t find any of these on pizzas in Italy. Traditionally in Italy, you would usually see only see two types of salami used to top a pizza; the Milano and Napoli. Both are used interchangeably (with a sprinkling of chopped red chillies) on the Diavola (the Italian word for devi)l, a staple on menus in traditional pizzerias. It’s a pizza made for heat-loving palates, though truth be told, its reputation is probably a little exaggerated. Both salamis are only mildly spicy, so if you’re looking for true hellfire, you’ll need either a different sausage or a bigger quantity of topping typically found on this pizza.
That’s another difference between the use of spicy salami on pizza in Italy and America. The sight of a pepperoni pizza drowning under a sea of red and brown meaty discs is common in America, but in Italy less is more and you can easily count the number of salami slices on a pizza.
This rule of thumb applies even as more regional varieties of cured meats are used on pizza. Contemporary pizzaioli are all about the balance of carefully sourced ingredients meant to get along with each other in order to create a contrast of flavours that is punchy and memorable, without breaking the rules too much. Every ingredient counts. For example, a pizza using the spicy sweetness of Ventricina Abruzzese (as the name implies, a variety from the Abruzzo region) complements the acidity of roasted diced pineapple (and yes, you can have pineapple on a pizza in Italy, despite what some may want you to believe!).
Travel throughout the Italian peninsula, and you’ll find many other similarly well-thought out pairings with regional salamis created by modern pizza chefs. Sometimes they favour local suppliers, meaning that what eat will be the representation of a regional cuisine. Other chefs, who prefer to express their creativity without territorial restrictions, take a more eclectic approach and source cured meats from all over Italy.
While Italians have many high-quality products to choose from and a rich history of pizza making, that’s not to say there couldn't (or shouldn’t) be a shift in approach. Today’s Italian pizzaioli feel just as much pressure to compete and innovate as anyone, and they’re increasingly being exposed to more global perspectives through social media.
One example is pizzaiolo Espedito Mauro who decided to bring the international pizza making experience he acquired from extensive traveling into his pizzeria. In 2021, he opened in Naples OWAP in Naples. The acronym stands for One World, All Pizzas. The Neapolitan pizzaiolo found out about the Calabrian origins of pepperoni, and tracked down a food producer in Calabria that makes them for the rest of the world. He went for a spicier version of the sausage, but with less garlic and oil to accommodate his customers’ tastes and were happy to try something new.
Times are changing, and Italians are more open-minded about food, despite their reputation abroad. New ingredients pique the interest of chefs and eaters alike, and there’s an ongoing trend of curiosity, especially toward American pizza styles.
Whether pepperoni on pizza is a doomed experiment or the first stage of a full-scale invasion of ‘roni cups, is yet to be seen. Perhaps it won’t be long until we will start seeing pepperoni popping up on more of our Italian menus, and only time (and Italians) will tell whether or not pepperoni will be easily accepted by the general Italian pizza lover!
That, though, is another topic for another discussion.