When you think of a brilliant red vegetable that’s synonymous with Italian cuisine, you undoubtedly think first of tomatoes. While that’s certainly true, another bright red beauty also gives Italian dishes their character: peppers. You’ll see them in the form of spicy red pepper flakes to shake on pizza or in their sweet green form with sausages on a sandwich. Pickled, they accompany sandwiches and salads. Whether roasted, marinated or fresh, this New World vegetable has found a new home in the venerable traditions of Italian cooking.
Sweet Peppers Green, yellow or red bell peppers are the surprisingly sweet heart of many savory Italian dishes. Called peperone in Italian, these mild vegetables impart a bright flavor that complements spicy Italian sausage. Pizzas with sausage and peppers are popular for a reason; the sweetness of the peppers makes a good foil for aromatic fennel and black pepper in the sausage.
Fresh bell peppers also roast and simmer beautifully. As they roast, their bright, sharp taste mellows into a softer, fuller flavor that goes well with creamy mozzarella, eggplant or cured meats like salami and pepperoni. You may not instantly recognize their characteristic flavor in a rich sauce, but chances are they’re there; they contribute an underlying sweetness to many tomato-based sauces.
Yellow peperoncini are almost always pickled to enhance their taste. Although a few kinds of peperoncini have a bit of warmth to them, they’re far closer to mild bell peppers than to their spicier cousins like pimento and cayenne peppers. The salt and vinegar brining liquid adds flavor while preserving the peppers’ fresh taste.
Even a pepperoni pizza couldn’t happen without peppers. One of the characteristic flavors of pizza’s perfect partner is paprika. The spice comes from powdered sweet red peppers, and they’re responsible for the bright orange-red hue of pepperoni slices.
Hot Peppers Italians aren’t averse to a little heat on the plate. Hot cherry peppers are a spicy accompaniment for sweet sausage or mild roasted vegetables if you have a taste for something with a kick to it. You’ll often find these spicy pimento peppers pickled with garlic and spices or marinated in oil to concentrate their flavor. Cherry peppers are great for waking up a simple sandwich or salad.
Plenty of pizza connoisseurs wouldn’t dream of enjoying a slice without a generous sprinkling of hot red pepper flakes. The red pepper shaker that graces pizzeria tables doesn’t contain just one kind of pepper; the coarsely ground spice is a mixture of a number of pepper types you might not associate with Italian food. The cayenne peppers found in Cajun dishes and the ancho chilies popular in Mexican food contribute heat and flavor to the blend; bell peppers and pimentos add sweetness.
Those pepper flakes do more than pep up a pizza. They can also add a new dimension to herbed olive oil for dipping bread or spice a sandwich loaded with meatballs or sausage.
Peppers aren’t likely to unseat tomatoes as the king of the Italian kitchen, but they’ve certainly earned their place as the second most popular Italian vegetable. Pick a pepper to enjoy on your pizza or sandwich; you’ll see why they’re so beloved in Italy too.Tweet