In May of 1985, my wife and I traveled to Italy. It was my first time there, her second. When we arrived in Firenze (that’s Florence, to those of use who speak English), I was thrilled to see some of the finest works of art ever created, including Michelangelo’s David. But I was a man on a mission. I wanted to eat my first, real Italian pizza.
Linda and I found a small cafe – I avoid the temptation of calling it an Italian restaurant – just off the Piazza del Duomo, the central plaza near the cathedral. There, in my finest Italian, which was none too fine, actually, I ordered a “Pizza con peperoni.” After waiting for what seemed like an unusually long period of time – this was Italy, after all – I finally received my long-sought-for prize . . . a pizza covered with green peppers. One problem: I hate green peppers! I wanted pepperoni. You know, those little slices of spicy salami. Pepperoni! Everybody knows that that is, right? (The photo offers a glorious example of what I wanted.)
By God’s grace, I restrained my impulse to complain, asking the waiter politely, “Pizza con peperoni?” “Pizza con peperoni,” he answered, confidently. In a moment I realized that “peperoni” is the Italian word for “green peppers,” not “little slices of smooth salami.” So I patiently picked the peperoni off of my pizza and had a genuine, Italian cheese and tomato pizza with a hint of green pepper flavoring.
If only I could have read an article in today’s New York Times before I traveled to Italy more than a quarter of a century ago. If I had done so, then I would have known that pepperoni pizza is not Italian, and that “peperoni” is the Italian word for “large peppers,” and that there is no Italian salami called “pepperoni.” That signature meat is, indeed, an American creation. For the record, I couldn’t find anything called “Italian sausage” in Italy either, only multiple varieties of sausage with multiple varieties of Italian names. And for the double record, I couldn’t find “Swiss cheese” in Switzerland, only dozens of kinds of white cheese with holes.
Julia Moskin’s article in the Times does more than prepare you to avoid ordering green pepper pizza in Italy. It also describes the curious history and contemporary debates about what we American’s like to call pepperoni. If you’re looking for some light and informative reading, especially if you’re a pizza fan, be sure to check out this article.
Does anybody else have peculiar “ordering in foreign countries” stories? Want to weigh in?