Spicy Pizza, Yes or No?
At forty-five, I feel old.
“You should avoid spicy foods,” my doctor said, as we discussed the possible causes of my recurring upset stomach. “Huh? No fried foods?” (My hearing’s not so good.)
“No,” she said. “Avoid spicy foods. And caffeine.”
Uh, oh. No more moderation bullsh*t like how I’ve winged it with meats and cheese and fried foods and (dare I say) pizza?
It hasn’t been easy. I love curries, pico de gallo, all matters of hot sauce (except for those that are hot only for hot’s sake), nose-burning wasabi and German or English or Dijon mustard, fiery jerk chicken from Flatbush, Pio Pio’s seductive creamy green ajì sauce ― all of it! For over twenty years my refrigerator door was filled with dozens of sauces. I can remember the exact flavor of Doxsee’s clam puffs dipped into a certain orange Scotch Bonnet sauce that is no longer in production. I contacted the manufacturer and I called stores all over, wanting to purchase any I could find. I got none.
With pizza, I often add crushed red pepper flakes ― but only after I've had a bite or two first. Gotta know what it’s all about, right? Even when under attack from the flakes, pizza somehow asserts itself. The heat from the types of peppers used to make flakes allows other, less spicy, components to retain their presence.
Obviously, not all peppers are so tame. Many years ago at Jaiya Thai in Elmhurst, a friend and I shared a tureen of tom yum goong that was so spicy we couldn’t finish it. We’d ordered it “medium” but afterwards the waiter told us he'd brought us “mild.” He pegged us for amateurs.
Wanna make your own hot pepper oil? I've used dried red chili peppers like these. Recipe link at bottom.
In Italy, instead of flakes restaurants offer “hot pepper oil.” It’s whole or crushed pods of small red chili peppers steeped in olive oil, often in an attractive glass bottle. Unlike flakes ― which do not dissolve and, along with oregano, can add unwanted texture to pizza ― oil presents a wholly different issue: oil.
In general, Italian low-moisture mozzarella doesn’t leach as much oil as does its American counterpart. Less processing? Superior quality? Not sure. I do know that hot pepper oil is a great option for spice when the cheese isn't oily, but when a cheap cheese leaches oil on its own, adding more oil seems like overkill.
Slice shops in the US offer self-service crushed red pepper flakes, dried oregano, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and sometimes grated cheese. We take these items for granted but I wonder, were they always part of the deal? The Daily Meal website did post a lengthy story that attempts "to solve the mystery of pizza and pepper flakes." The piece is thorough and interesting, but not definitive. (In one section, Lombardi's owner John Brescio claims hot pepper flakes have "been around since the beginning," ― ie. 1905. I've seen kitchen and dining room photos of Lombardi's from the 1930s and '40s: no evidence of flakes.)
Since pizza came from Italy to the US, did Italian hot pepper oil precede American hot pepper flakes? According to Pizzeria Brandi (one of the oldest pizzerias in Naples), peperoncino oil is only for English speaking customers: “We did not even have it at all until the first American customer asked for it. The original and true pizza recipe is without it.”
Is this Naples pizza snobbery? Scott Wiener, of Scott’s Pizza Tours in NYC, told me he suspects that pepper flakes (and the other dry condiments) became popular in the US in the 1950s. That’s when pizza took off in this country. (See Pizzacentric story about the growth in the number of NYC pizza shops here.)
Pizzeria Brandi's statement does give me pause. Are crushed red peppers or hot pepper oil déclassé? Yes, spice adds flavor; and no, it need not interrupt the flavors of pizza beneath. But it does work best with a pizza made with low-moisture, more oozy mozzarella, a sauce that has been doctored with spice, and a dough of chewy texture. Enter the realm of fresh cheeses (like fior di latte, buffalo mozzarella, or burrata) or undoctored natural tomato sauce or soft and yeasty dough ― and spice destroys nuance.
I’m American, goshdarnit. If I desire a flavor boost then I’ll add hot pepper ― flakes or oil! And I probably won’t listen to my doctor. Or maybe I will.
The truth is, I may have curtailed my spicy pizza habit because of my doctor’s warning (and due to my lean toward higher quality pizza these days) but I'm just making it up as I go along. For all I know, it could be stress that has caused the upset stomach.
But I feel judged. An Italian pizzaman views hot pepper oil as a thing to blame Americans for. Rather, if his history is true, he should thank Americans. The lovely hot pepper oil that now graces tables in pizza shops throughout Italy simply looks good (see top photo) and its use is entirely optional.
Pizza by Certé in Midtown offers 2 spicy options: Jalapeño Oil (delightful) and Habañero Sauce (deadly).
In New York, few places offer hot pepper oil. It’s at Best Pizza in Brooklyn, and both the Brooklyn and Manhattan locations of Fornino. Pizza by Certé, on East 56th Street, offers oils: jalapeño oil (delicious, and fitting for a novice) and a creamy habañero sauce (¡cuidado!). (Certé also offers a roasted garlic oil that beats the pants off gritty powder any day.)
Because modern American cuisine incorporates foods and preparations from cultures around the world, it’s no surprise that spicy foods have pervaded our cuisine in countless scenarios.
A couple weeks ago ― after I had eaten a regular slice and an incredible spinach empanada at Pagliaccio Pizzeria in Jackson Heights, Queens ―I saw a fascinating photo on the takeout menu (see above). The “Circo pizza,” is a pepperoni-sausage-pancetta-green pepper-and-onion pizza with a stand towering from its center. The stand holds three homemade hot sauces: chimichurri, red Mexican, and red hot peppers in oil and vinegar.
Doctor, can I try that? Naples, close your eyes!
The hot oil pie at Colony Grill, in Stamford, CT.
At the Colony Grill (two ― soon to be three ― locations in Connecticut), the most popular pie has “hot oil” as a topping. After roasting fresh serrano peppers in a blend of olive and vegetable oils, Colony then drizzles upon the center the oil from the peppers and a single roasted serrano prior to baking. Those peppers are also available as a topping ― they’re called “stingers.” On the Scoville scale, the hot pepper oil is quite mild. In truth, I think only Italy's most hardcore pizza puritans would be insulted.
In the American mainstream, no one has insulted pizza purity more than the big chains. A quick look to Domino’s website shows not only a Hawaiian Pizza (“Sliced ham, smoked bacon, pineapple and roasted red peppers, cheeses made with 100% real mozzarella and provolone on a cheesy Parmesan Asiago crust”) but also a Fiery Hawaiian Pizza (same as Hawaiian, but with hot sauce and jalapeños added to the mix). I have no inkling to try either of these.
Adam Kuban, creator of the pizza blog "Slice," posted a story a couple of years ago. In it, he features Colony Grill's hot oil pizza as a springboard for preparing your own hot pepper oil. Nothing like homemade condiment, and this one's easy!
If you know of spots serving hot pepper oil, shoot me a message and I’ll add to the list.
Colony Grill in Connecticut. (1) Stamford. 172 Myrtle Avenue. Tel. 203-359-2184. Map Colony Grill, Stamford, CT. Hours: 7 days, week, 11:30 am until "late closing." (2) Fairfield. 1520 Post Road. Tel. 203-259-1989. Map Colony Grill, Fairfield, CT. Hours: 7 days, week, 11:30 am until "late closing." Colony Grill website.