You Say Pepperoni...

...I Say Peperoni. And Salame!

Pepperoni Pizza

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If you think the pepperoni you order on pizza or on an antipasto plate in a pizzeria or a seemingly Italian (generally more likely Italian-American) restaurant in the States sounds Italian, it does indeed.

The spicy variety of dry salami (American spelling) usually made of pork and beef and ubiquitous on American pizza is, in fact, an Italian-American creation, birthed in the States, whose name derives from the Italian word peperone, which means "pepper": the green or red pendulous vegetable grown the world over whose many varieties are spicy. Peperoncino, whether fresh or dried and ground, is the small hot kind.

Peperone to Pepperoni

In creating the new American sausage, surely the new Italian immigrants thought of their faraway relatives and the spicy sausages they had left behind. But as they rebuilt their lives in their new country, their mostly Southern dialects mixed and merged and morphed into a hybrid, and the original Italian word peperone became "pepperoni," different in spelling and pronunciation from the word that inspired it.

In fact, note, peppers are spelled peperoni (singular peperone), with one p, and if you order pepperoni on a pizza in Italy, you will get a pizza with peppers, since there is no pepperoni sausage.

Americanized Italian Foods

Pepperoni stands in a crowd of foods that in the States are considered Italian but whose name, derivation, and very nature have been adulterated by distance, time, and the American palate. Italian-American communities all over the United States, seeking connection to home and tradition, recreated their versions of foods that, while dramatically changing and enriching the American culinary landscape, and while maintaining nostalgic bonds to the homeland, in reality have little to do with the original (and as time has passed, they have had less and less to do with it). They have become their own Italian-American thing, and are called by names influenced by Italian-American dialects. What are some others?

There is no "gravy" for spaghetti; it is called sugo or salsa (and it does not have to cook for three days); the proper name for what in the States is called capicola or gabagool (à la Tony Soprano) is capocollo (in Tuscany, or coppa in Northern Italy); salami is salame; the closest thing to American bologna (the name of the city, Bologna) is mortadella (there is no bologna). Chicken parmigiana...you will be hard-pressed to find it in Italy. Baked ziti, you won't find them either (there is lasagna, of course, but also pasta al forno and timballo, depending on where you are), or spaghetti and meatballs for that matter (meatballs are called polpette and they are served as a second course, with a contorno or a side vegetable, not on pasta). And soppressata and ricotta, well, that is how you spell them and pronounce them. And prosciutto: not projoot (à la Tony Soprano).

And there is nothing called an "antipasto plate": the antipasto, as you know, is the appetizer course. If you want what in America is known as the antipasto plate, order an antipasto misto, which will feature cured and salted meats, cheeses, and crostini or bruschetta. And, sorry to say, there is no garlic bread either!

Salumi: Order Like a Sophisticate

So, for those traveling to Italy who want to sample an authentic Italian version of the American relative pepperoni, depending on where you are, you should ask for salame or salamino piccante, or salsiccia piccante (spicy salame or dried sausage), characteristic mostly of the South. You will not be disappointed.

Remember that Italian cooking is quintessentially regional, down to the town specialty, and nearly every region of Italy has several varieties of salame—and nearly every other type of cured or salted meats (called as a whole salumi). Their variations and uniqueness depend on such factors as the type of animal used (lots of boar and pig, and sometimes horse, too), the grinding or processing of the meat, the fat percentage, the flavorings, the casing, and the curing method and length.

So, perhaps the best suggestion is to forget about pepperoni altogether and try the local offerings, of which, in the case of salumi (and salame!) there are so many types that there are regional competitions and organizations dedicated to the preservation of their unique local manufacturing traditions and flavors: from bresaola to lardo, soppressa, speak, and carpaccio up North, to culatello, guanciale and finocchiona in Centro Italia, to soppressata and capocollo down South. And variations in between. You will find unique salted and cured products with such curious names as baffetto, cardosella, lonzino, pindula, and pezzenta. And of course, dozens of kinds of cured salame and prosciutto: enough to plan a special culinary trip!

So, leave the pepperoni at home, and buon appetito!