Pizza may come to mind as a classic Italian food, but pepperoni? It's a completely American topping.
Pepperoni has ascended to being the most beloved topping in America, according to a February 2019 poll from YouGov, a public opinion and data company. The company asked 1,212 pizza eaters about their top three pizza toppings. And it turns out, most respondents will take the meat lovers pizza, please. Fifty-two percent of respondents said pepperoni is their favorite pizza addition, followed by sausage (34%) and mushroom (31%). While that has changed in recent years, with some studies suggesting people are enjoying chicken pizza more, pepperoni still ranks as one of the most popular pizza toppings, especially in the U.S.
How did we get here? Why did we start peppering our pizzas with pepperoni? Experts say it comes down to the need for speed in pizza shops and the American palate.
Long before 'roni cups took over Instagram, there was "sausage for pizza." That topping hit the pizza scene in the late 1970s, Darren Ezzo of Ezzo Sausage Company explained to Thrillist. The meat topping was close to modern pepperoni, but it wasn't dried, which saved time during the creation process. Italian meats like capicola, meanwhile, took months to process. But this pepperoni could be pizza-ready after weeks, rather than months.
Who made the first pepperoni pizza?
Ezzo told Thrillist that his family's company was the first to sell pre-sliced pepperoni specifically made for pizza. The Ezzo blend includes a spiced blend of ground beef and pork. And while the company was founded in the late '70s, it's gained more name recognition in recent months thanks to the prevalence of those sparkling, grease-filled 'roni cups you see on Instagram. (New York restaurants like Emily and Emmy Squared use Ezzo sausage on their pizzas.)
What exactly is pepperoni, anyway?
Chef Anthony Scardino, known in culinary circles as "Professor Pizza," says that pepperoni is an American extrapolation of Calabrese salami tradition. It's also a close cousin to soppressata, an Italian dried salami.
"The Americans lowered the spice index and upped the sweetness," says Scardino, the head chef at New York-style pizza shop Dough Bros in Chicago.
Pepperoni, he says, unlike most other aged and cured salamis, is a steamed product. As it cooks, a great pepperoni will cup and char, allowing fat to render out and meld with the rest of the flavor profile of the pizza.
Why do Americans love pepperoni so much?
Americans are onto something with their fave pizza toppings, Scardino says. He likes how the earthiness of mushrooms counteracts the spice and fat of the pepperoni and how the fat from the meat helps cook and crisp the mushrooms.
"There is a whole host of great meat toppings, but few as iconic as pepperoni," he says. "Second to a classic cheese pizza, pepperoni probably stirs up more nostalgia than just about any other pizza topping out there."
Pepperoni has remained a staple on pizza because it's fairly universal, says Rick Schaper, owner of Dogtown Pizza in St. Louis, Missouri.
"It has huge flavor and spice, but is not too spicy for the non-spicy fans out there," Schaper says.
What other pizza traditions are distinctly American?
Giving it the ranch dressing treatment, for one thing, says Chef Anthony Carron, chef and founder of 800 Degrees Kitchen in New York City.
"I don't think Italians in Italy have even heard of ranch, much less dreamed of dunking a slice of pizza in it," he says. "But it is delicious. And try arguing with a ranch-on-pizza die-hard someday, and you will get nowhere quick."
Whether you love pepperoni by itself, pepperoni with mushrooms, or just plain cheese pizza, you can't go wrong. The food is an American icon for a reason, even if it looks different from what you'd find in Europe.