Exposure to pepperoni comes early and often if you’re growing up in the United States. High-octane commercials where pepperonis glisten and crunch atop the elastic cheese of a delivery pizza hardwire our brains to love it. Most of us stuffed our faces with it at skating rink birthday parties and family trips to Chuck E. Cheese, or at the occasional school celebration, where a “pizza party” meant being rewarded with a little bit of crust and a smattering of sauce, but mostly with those delicious meaty polka dots: pepperoni.
If pepperoni sounds like an American tradition, that’s because it’s the rare type of cured meat that (surprise!) actually is American. Contrary to the popular belief that pepperoni hails from Italy, this fine-grained, air-dried pizza topping that we know and love dates back only to around 1919 in New York City, when pizza parlors were on the rise and chefs needed to re-create the sausages of the homeland in a more shelf-stable fashion. Drawing inspiration from the red-tinged sausages of Calabria and Apulia, Italy — and taking the Italian word for “large pepper” to describe the new creation — Italian-Americans did a little tweaking of the spice blend here, a balancing of fat content there and, behold, the pepperoni was born.
Today, pepperoni remains far and away the most popular pizza topping in the United States, decorating roughly 1.08 billion pies a year. One of its primary strengths as an ingredient (outside of sheer deliciousness, of course) is its ability to be kept on pizzeria shelves for a significant amount of time. Anthony Panichelli, pizza toppings brand manager at Hormel, told NPR earlier this year that pepperoni, “…can last on the shelf for up to 180 days, almost half a year, as opposed to, say, sausage, the second most popular pizza topping, which goes bad in a week.” This long shelf life helps contribute to the typically high profit margins seen by pizza parlors.
And this doesn’t even begin to include the myriad other ways that pepperonis show up in our cuisine. There are calzones, of course, which some believe to be simply folded-over pizzas (a debate for another day), but there are also chunks of pepperoni in pasta salads and sitting alongside other charcuterie as part of antipasto platters. In West Virginia, a beloved local dish known as the “pepperoni roll” can be found at every state fair and gas station as you weave through the mountains; it’s a dense stack of pepperoni baked inside a yeasty roll to form a perfectly greasy handheld snack. (There’s even a festival devoted to them each year, as well as a history book written on the über-specific topic.) I’ve also been known to buy a snack-sized bag of pepperoni before long road trips, and pop slices into my mouth as I cruise down the highway. Pepperoni is definitely no one trick pony.
It is, though, perhaps in its most glorious form as a pizza topping, when the edges of the pepperoni slices begin to slightly curl to form pools of spicy fat that splash onto the cheese with each ravenous bite. That’s why I’ve always been a little skeptical of anyone who shuns such a staple of the pizza canon.
In 2011, Michael Ruhlman, author of — among other books — Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing, told The New York Times that pepperoni was a “bastard” dish, and that, “Bread, cheese and salami is a good idea. But America has a way of taking a good idea, mass-producing it to the point of profound mediocrity, then losing our sense of where the idea comes from.”
And, sure, I’m never going to turn down a top-tier pizza with hot soppressata or a delicate, coal-fired creation covered in prosciutto. But when the craving for classic, grab-a-slice-and-go pizza calls, it’s pepperoni — in all its quintessential American glory — that’ll be sure to satisfy.