Why Italians Don't Eat Pepperoni on Their Pizza (Or At All)
By: Giuseppe A. D'Angelo
Pepperoni is America’s favorite pizza topping and a growing trend across the globe. One country, though, continues to rebuff its relentless march toward world domination: Italy.
Why? First of all, as most Italians know, pepperoni isn’t Italian. It’s considered an Italian-American invention, often attributed to early 20th century immigrants in New York City. Say “pepperoni” to Italians, and most will hear “peperoni,” which, without the extra “p,” refers to bell peppers.
Visually, you’d be hard pressed to confuse the cured, spicy salami made from beef and pork with a nightshade fruit, but taste-wise, their similarities may explain how it came to be named. According to food historian and author John F. Mariani of “How Italian Food Conquered the World,” the term “pepperoni” was coined by Italian-Americans who, when eating the spicy sausage, were reminded of peperoncini, the hot, sweet Calabrian chile pepper from southern Italy.
Still, with pepperoni’s strong links to Italy, the wave of viral food trends, and the ever-growing popularity of pizza in general, you might think pepperoni would have caught on in Italy by now. 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 category of food . Cured sausage is no exception: There’s spianata, ventricina, soppressata, crespone, Napoletano and Norcia, just to name a few. There’s no region in Italy that doesn’t boast its own local version of salami, and many of these, like those already mentioned, also feature spices and peppers. In short, modern Italian pizzaioli are already spoiled for choice when it comes to cured meats.
Still, just because we Italians have the spicy, salty goods doesn’t mean we use them as a topping. Until recently, you wouldn’t find any of them on pizzas in Italy. Even in recent years, you would see only two types of salami topping pizza: the Milano and the Napoli. They’re used interchangeably (along with a sprinkling of chopped red chilies) on the diavola – Italian for “devil” – a staple on traditional pizzeria menus. It’s known as a pizza made for heat-loving palates, though that’s a little exaggerated: Both meats are only mildly spicy. For true hellfire, you’d need much more than the 50 grams typically used on this pizza.
And that’s another difference between the use of spicy salami on pizza in Italy and the United States: The sight of a pizza drowning under a sea of meaty discs is common in America, while in Italy, you can easily count the number of salami slices on a pizza: four or five if it’s the large, thinly cut type; less than 10 with the smaller variety.
This rule of thumb applies even as more regional cured meats find their way atop pizza. Contemporary pizzaioli — many of the good ones, at least — are all about the balance of carefully sourced ingredients meant to complement each other with their punchy, memorable flavor contrasts. Every ingredient on an Italian pizza counts. For example, a pizza featuring the spicy sweetness of Ventricina Abruzzese (a variety from the Abruzzo region) might also highlight 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 balanced pairings featuring regional salami created by modern pizza chefs. Sometimes the chefs favor local suppliers, which means what you eat will be representative of the regional cuisine. Other chefs take a more eclectic approach, sourcing cured meats from all around Italy.
While Italians have many high-quality products to choose from (and a rich history of pizza-making, of course), there’s still room for a shift in approach. Today’s Italian pizzaioli feel just as much pressure to compete and innovate as anyone, and they’re increasingly exposed to more global perspectives through social media.
Mauro Espedito, who decided to bring the international pizza-making experience he acquired through extensive travel into his own pizzeria, is one example. In 2021, he opened OWAP in Naples. (The acronym stands for One World, All Pizzas.) The Neapolitan pizzaiolo caught wind of the Calabrian origins of pepperoni, so he tracked down the food producer in Calabria that makes them for the rest of the world. (He went for a spicier version with less garlic and oil to accommodate his customers, who were happy to try something new.)
After all, times are changing, and Italians are more open-minded about food now, despite their reputation. New ingredients pique the interest of chefs and diners alike, and there’s an ongoing surge in curiosity, especially regarding American pizza styles.
Whether pepperoni on pizza is a doomed experiment in Italy or the first stage of a full-scale invasion of ‘roni cups remains to be seen. But maybe, just maybe, it won’t be long before we start seeing pepperoni pop up on Italian menus. Only time (and Italians) will tell whether or not pepperoni can come to be accepted there.
Giuseppe A. D'Angelo is a blogger and journalist based in Naples, Italy. He writes about his pizza travels for magazines and on his blog, Pizza DIXIT*, and co-hosts a podcast about pizza and food culture.