Jay Sprogell/Thrillist
Jay Sprogell/Thrillist

How Pepperoni Became America's Favorite Pizza Topping

But, of course, they weren’t: the kids were excited about the spicy, greasy, crisp-edged wonder that makes up the dried sausage of mixed pork, beef, and spices—specifically peppers, where the name came from. Pepperoni dots the top more than a third of pizzas sold in the country. It’s not surprising, given that pepperoni is America’s default pizza setting. Every pizza advertisement on television, every artistic rendering, even the pizza emoji, comes with the big red circles representing the stuff.

Though pizza in America descended from the gentle, light pizza of Naples, where it came topped with cheese and perhaps anchovies or mushrooms, American pizza, helped by the most American of toppings, slowly became the saucy, spicy beast it is now. Pizza as a widespread and well-loved American tradition is fairly recent: until about the ‘50s, says pizza scholar, historian, author of New Haven Apizza, and tour operator Colin Caplan, “It was considered an ethnic Italian dish.” The commercialization of the gas pizza oven, veterans returning from the Second World War, and the beginning of media coverage of pizza all converged and began to popularize the dish. The New York Timesfirst mentioned pizza in 1944, saying “Pizza, a pie popular in Southern Italy, is offered here for home consumption,” then followed up three years later, declaring it “could be as popular a snack as the hamburger if Americans only knew more about it.”

The paper of record first mentioned pepperoni right around then, too, but in discussing rations, not pizza. Pepperoni is first mentioned in print in the US Government’s Yearbook of Agriculture, which calls the popular pizza topping “a dry sausage,” in 1894. Caplan says that’s even on the early side. It wasn’t until after the First World War that the term pepperoni came into common use for sausage, and even that stayed within Italian-American markets, in the Little Italys that dotted American cities.

"Pepperoni dots the top of more than a third of the pizzas sold in this country."

In 1906, Darren Ezzo's great-grandfather made some of that sausage at his grocery store in Canastota, New York. Today, the family business, Ezzo Sausage, in Columbus, produces pepperoni for some of the country's most talked about pizzerias, like Apizza Scholls in Portland, Oregon and Emily in New York City. But when the Columbus business opened in opened in the late '70s, pepperoni wasn't yet popular: instead, they produced something called "sausage for pizza," made and sliced similar to today's pepperoni, but without the drying step
The ubiquitousness of pepperoni on American pizza (and not Italian) has something to do with that construction, says Ezzo. In Italy, he explains, pizza was just dough, baked, then topped with cheese and fresh basil, with tomatoes arriving from the New World and coming into the picture in the late 19th century. Meanwhile, in New York, Italians did their best to approximate using what they had. That meant using the ample tomatoes, but also substituting dried oregano for the fresh basil. Many of the meats they made from back home--capicola, he offers, as an example--took too long to make to be wasted on a pizza. "They needed something more accessible," so they substituted the short-process pepperoni. Ezzo's pepperonis only hang for one to three weeks, depending on the style, before they're sliced and sent to pizzerias, other meats can take months.

Pizza and pepperoni first collided, per Caplan’s research points, in the middle of the century. Sausage, bacon, and even other types of salami were common toppings in the ‘30s, he says, but the first evidence he found of pepperoni as a pizza topping came in 1950: a photo of a wall menu at a pizzeria called The Spot in New Haven, Connecticut. Then, he says, began to trickle into toppings selections around the country. Prior to that, it would have been on menus, but as an appetizer, like a cured meat plate, perhaps with pickles. “That’s how a lot of toppings made it onto pizza in the first place: people experimenting.”

Pepperoni is an important topping to the business today, says Domino’s Pizza Executive Vice President of Operations, Scott Hinshaw. When he started in the pizza industry 35 years ago, he estimates only about 30% of Dominos’ pizzas then were ordered with pepperoni—it’s now 50%. Last year in the US, Domino's went through 29 million pounds of pepperoni..

Domino’s began in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1960, two years after competitor Pizza Hut opened in Wichita, Kansas (selling pepperoni pizzas for $1.35 at the time). Both chains opened just as pizza's popularity burst, paralleled by the growth of pepperoni as a topping. That, says Caplan, is unlikely to be coincidental. “They [pizza chains] would have found products that could be mass-produced,” he explains. Distributing to multiple locations, they needed ones that were easy to supply, unlike, say, fresh chicken—a popular pizza topping early on. Pepperoni, he says, had a grand advantage in being salty, cheap, and could hold up over time and transport. As they grew, the chains helped to establish the iconic style by studying people’s eating habits and keeping or expanding what people wanted—writ large.

In the early '80's, Ezzo's started producing pepperoni in the current style: ground pork and beef with spices, fermented and dried. Ezzo's was the first company to sell pepperoni pre-sliced, specifically made to put on pizza. "Pepperoni wasn't really something people were doing a whole lot of," he explains, "until the chains really started popping up." Ezzo's even supplied big name chains until the expansion and franchising meant that they tried to drive down the price too much.

"Something about how pepperoni looks on a pizza completes the slice."

A good pepperoni, says Ezzo, has character. "It needs to react to the heat, show that it's made out of real meat (as opposed to finely texture pork, or pink slime)." It shouldn't have a bunch of salt in front and pepper in back, but round flavor, with notes of garlic, fennel, and a touch of heat. But people like different styles of pepperoni: some look for a slice that sits flat, others want the popular "cupping" style, which Ezzo's makes by using a collagen casing (it shrinks up from the heat).

Meanwhile, Hinshaw says Domino's has experimented with other styles: dime-sized mini-pepperoni, which burned up, and larger versions, which failed to cup up or bake right, Domino’s mostly figured out that America’s favorite pizza topping is already just the right size—and not going anywhere. “It may change,” says Hinshaw, “but it won’t diminish or go away.” In fact, he thinks America might be just at the beginning of a pepperoni heyday, suggesting that in this era of endless choice, the question won’t just be if you want pepperoni, but which kind: extra-spicy, crispy, thick, thin, or even sausage sliced to behave like pepperoni.

That staying power comes because in America, pepperoni is an essential part of the pizza. It's the default for Little Caesar's Hot-n-Ready. And Pizza Today wrote about a woman who considered "plain" pizza to include pepperoni. Even Ezzo himself jokes that he calls pepperoni "emoji pizza," because it's so iconic. "Something about how pepperoni looks on a pizza completes the slice." Through all the health trends and diets moving away from meat, pepperoni continues to blast upward in popularity. Ezzo has been asked for vegan versions, because even those who shun meat can't fathom a pizza without pepperoni. "Something about the red spots just looks so appealing." Ollie Wagner, who designed that famous pizza emoji, agrees. When he first made it in 2008, the Albuquerque man said, "it was fun to draw," it looked good graphically, and everyone who saw it knew exactly what it was. "It's the iconic pizza, it makes for a good slice." Also, he adds, "I, personally, love pepperoni."

And who doesn't? Ezzo says he gets hungry just looking at the emoji, imagining them to be the cupping slices he sells, with their little pools of grease and enticing char. "It's very instagrammable," he says, "but I remind people it tastes even better than it looks."

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Award-winning food and travel writer Naomi Tomky uses her unrelenting enthusiasm as an eater, photographer, and writer to propel herself around the world. Follow her on Twitter @Gastrognome and on Instagram @the_gastrognome.