The surprising origin of pepperoni pizza

Close your eyes and envision the iconic slice of pizza. Chances are it's got pepperoni on it. According to a 2019 poll conducted by YouGov, this spicy seasoned salami is the most popular pizza topping in America. Annually, our love for pepperoni pizza accounts for around 252 million (yes, million) pounds of pepperoni consumed in a sea of tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese (via Your Guide to Pizza). Pepperoni pizza, it turns out, is rooted in American culture (via Thrillist).

American pizza, of course, is a descendent of the Italian pie. Immigrants from Naples brought the now ubiquitous food custom overseas, serving up slices in cities famous for their pizzerias, including New Haven and Chicago (via History). Pepperoni, on the other hand, is a New World addition. Food writer and historian John Mariani called pepperoni "purely an Italian-American creation, like chicken Parmesan" (via The New York Times). In fact, the Italian word "peperoni" refers to large bell peppers and not a cured salami. The original flatbreads in Naples were topped with tomatoes, cheese, oil, anchovies, and garlic.

Pepperoni pizza was born in America

The air-dried spicy salami known as pepperoni first appeared in Italian-American markets following World War I but didn't make its debut as a pizza topping until much later. Photographic evidence of a wall menu at a New Haven pizzeria called The Spot points to the 1950s. By contrast, in the 1930s, sausage, bacon, and other types of salami had been the typical toppings. Pizza scholar and author of New Haven Apizza Colin Caplin suspects that pepperoni first appeared on restaurant menus as part of a cured meat appetizer. Caplin told Thrillist, "That's how a lot of toppings made it onto pizza in the first place: people experimenting."

Why pepperoni stayed on menus is a whole different story. The trajectory of pepperoni as America's favorite pizza topping follows the same timeline as pizza's rising popularity as fast food. When pizza chains Pizza Hut and Domino's opened their ovens in the 1960s, they were looking for toppings that were inexpensive and traveled well, according to Caplin. He said pizza chains "would have found products that could be mass-produced." Pepperoni fit the bill, and the rest is history.