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Red Rocket

October 11, 2011

What’s long and hard and red all over?
Pepperoni.

It turns out the joke is on me. For the past two years, Round Two of All Over Albany’s Tournament of Pizza has been the sausage round. This year the tournament has gone back to its roots and switched to pepperoni.

Here’s a little known fact. I hate the stuff.

The good news is that I still love the Tournament of Pizza, and continue to take my judging duties seriously. I do understand that pepperoni is a popular pizza topping, and it’s important to evaluate what each pizza place does with this cured and smoked industrially produced pork and beef sausage.

So having gone through the first heat of the pepperoni round, and doing a little bit of homework on the matter, I thought it might be interesting to talk a little bit more about this bastardization of an Italian sausage.

Perhaps that’s not fair. There is some thought that the Italian-American creation of pepperoni actually has its roots in the Midwest. I stumbled across a great article on the stuff from the New York Times, and I’ll be quoting liberally from it today. In the piece, the author spoke with Paul Bertolli, who is a master sausage maker:

Mr. Bertolli believes that pepperoni’s smokiness, beef content and fine grind are more characteristic of German sausages like Thüringer, suggesting a possible Midwestern connection. “I’ve never seen a smoked sausage anywhere in Italy,” he said.

Those who do believe that pepperoni’s roots are Italian cite the spicy sausages of southern Italy. And heat is a major component of pepperoni’s DNA. This is no wimpy topping like ground beef or chicken. Pepperoni isn’t merely another protein to top a carbohydrate-heavy pizza. Its purpose is to liven up a pie with spice and heat.

There is no point in having wimpy pepperoni.

Despite looking like meat, pepperoni is mostly fat. Honestly, I don’t really know how this is done. Especially since when one examines America’s number one pepperoni, Hormel, the ingredients don’t even list fat. Yet of the 140 calories per serving, 120 of those are from fat.

Don’t think for a second that it’s pepperoni’s fat content that draws my ire. Fat is great. Fat carries flavor. And different pizzerias use that fat in different ways.

According to DerryX, one of my co-judges, whether a pepperoni slice curls or lays flat is dependent on the nature of its casing. Pepperoni that curls can trap juicy cups of piquant pork/beef fat into hot morsels of flavor. Pepperoni that lays flat can excrete its fat into the surrounding cheese, imbuing the whole pie with its smoky/spicy flavor.

However, it is only the pepperoni that curls that has the chance of getting crisp around its edges and creating a distinct textural contrast with the tender meaty core of the sausage round.

Didn’t I say I hated this stuff? Well, I do. I think it was put best in that New York Times article in the paragraph about Michel Ruhlman. He calls pepperoni pizza:

a “bastard” dish, a distorted reflection of wholesome tradition. “Bread, cheese and salami is a good idea,” he said. “But America has a way of taking a good idea, mass-producing it to the point of profound mediocrity, then losing our sense of where the idea comes from.” He prefers lardo or a fine-grained salami, very thinly sliced, then laid over pizza as it comes out of the oven rather than cooked in the oven.

Amen brother.

I can imagine that somewhere out there is a pepperoni that I might enjoy. But so much of what is served on pizza is factory made of factory-produced pigs and cows. The best pizza joints will grind their own Italian sausage. And while their pork may not be happy meat, at least the number of animals I’m eating can likely be counted on my fingers and toes. As unfathomable as it may sound, a pepperoni can be made from hundreds or even thousands of animals. Take a look.

Great pizza is crafted by trained hands, and cooked with care and attention. These pies deserve to be topped with accompaniments that are equally special. While I can appreciate the killer combo of smoky-spicy-fatty that pepperoni brings to bear, I cannot endorse this popular pizza meat.

But I would be curious to see what Chef Christopher Allen Tanner and his students are doing with pepperoni at SCCC. A handmade version of the stuff could certainly change my mind.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2011 9:39 am

    Haha, so our discussion resonated. Most pepperoni is manufactured with synthetic casing, usually made from cellulose, which isn’t exactly the most appetizing stuff on the planet, especially in other forms (i.e. wood). Fat content in the cheese would also be a factor in the curling. Cheese with lower fat will extract the melting fat from the pepperoni as the pizza bakes better than a cheese with higher fat (remember, everything is trying to reach an equilibrium); As the fat leaves the pepperoni, in the dry heat of the oven, the meat has an opportunity to crisp and curl. This is, of course, all theory.

    I am with Ruhlman, a cured meat spread over a hot pizza is a great thing. Just thinking about spreading thin sliced sopresatta over a warm wood fired pizza is enough to make me want a brick oven of my own!

  2. October 11, 2011 11:05 am

    I’ll take cold pepperoni with some sharp cheddar cheese and crackers any day. Hot pepperoni on a pizza, gross. It’s up there as one of my least favorite pizza toppings, don’t get me started on meatballs as a topping. Why would you put bland ground beef on a pizza when you can have sausage? If you want meatballs, sauce, cheese and bread order a meatball sub.

  3. -R. permalink
    October 11, 2011 12:03 pm

    I’ve had pizza in Italy made with both prosciutto and sopressata, and I’ve had pizza in Andalusia made with jamon (Iberico). All were fantastic and stood on their own merits in relation to their cured-meat origins – the individual flavor of each cured meat was distinct, but galvanized into something greater with the addition of heat, carbohydrates, vegetable matter and contrapuntal fats. My only complaint with European pie is that you have to eat it with a knife and fork – they don’t cut it into slices (usually).

    Yes, pepperoni is an Americanized bastardization of these noble cured meats from the continent. Yes, it’s kind of nasty in that industrialized, processed way. God only knows what they put into it. But for me, it falls into the same category as hot dogs – just enjoy it for what it is and try not to overly analyze the vile nature of what you’re eating. And, hell yeah, I love a pepperoni pie!

  4. October 11, 2011 9:35 pm

    I am also not a fan of pepperoni, though I do admit to enjoying some inside a calzone. I don’t think I want to know how you feel about calzone.

    BTW, Chef Tanner is going to be strutting some of his charcuterie stuff at the Schenectady Greenmarket’s Local Harvest Dinner in November. And guess what? I wrote about that today (http://wendalicious.com/2011/10/11/local-harvest-dinner-tickets-available/). Pepperoni does not appear to be on the menu, though.

  5. October 12, 2011 7:59 pm

    I know it’s loaded with God-knows-what, but I just love pepperoni. Especially thinly sliced, deli pepperoni. YUM. And, pepperoni as a pizza topping is hands down my favorite. It’s the one processed food that I openly embrace and love.

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