Welcome back to our Spice Cabinet series! Today we’re talking about peperoncino. Italian cuisine is not generally known for its spiciness (except for some Calabrian and other southern dishes). More often, peppers are used to bring flavor to a dish, rather than lots of heat. That’s the case with peperoncini, which are small hot peppers. These peppers are typically dried then crushed and used to add a bit of heat but also sweet flavor to a variety of dishes, from soups to salumi and beyond.
There are dozens of varieties of peppers that end up being classified as “peperoncini.” Peperoncini were brought to Europe from Central and South America in the mid 16th century. Historically, spicy cuisines developed in hot areas, as the perspiration brought on by spicy food has a cooling effect. This partially explains why spicy dishes are much more popular in the south of Italy, especially Calabria. Abruzzese cuisine is also known for their use of tiny, spicy red peppers, in both fresh and dried preparations.
Peperoncino came to be known as the “spezia dei poveri,” or spice of the poor, because it was rarely used among the “upper class.” Instead it was a spice used mostly by the peasant class in the South of Italy through the 19th century. Peperoncino helped to flavor bland dishes and preserve meat. or mask “off” flavors, when there was no refrigeration. When Southern Italians emigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, they brought their preference for peperoncino with them. Peperoncino is omnipresent in Italian-American food, and you’re likely to find dried peperoncini in every Italian-American pantry.
Peperoncini are widely believed to have vasodilatory properties. Because of this, many people believe that eating spicy foods improves circulation and generally improves heart health. My great grandfather Tony, who lived to be 101 years old, credited his health and vigor to copious consumption of red pepper!
Peperoncini also have beneficial effects on the digestive system; they help to “keep things moving,” if you will. They also may help curb the appetite, and if you’re on a reduced sodium diet, adding dried peperoncino is a great way to add flavor without adding too much salt.
Some people also say that making a mixture of chili and alcohol and applying it externally to sore or arthritic areas of the body can improve circulation and take away your pain!
Dried peperoncini are used in a number of ways in Italian cooking. One of the most common and beloved dishes is spaghetti aglio, olio, e peperoncino (garlic, oil, and dried red pepper). Families throughout the south of Italy prepare this quick, cheap, and comforting dish on a regular basis.
‘Nduja is a type of Calabrian salumi that is gaining popularity both in Italy and abroad. “Leftovers” from pigs are chopped fine and mixed with lots and lots of peperoncini, making a spicy, spreadable salumi.
Penne all’Arrabiata is another famous pasta dish, typical of Lazio, that owes its flavor to peperoncini. A classic tomato sauce is made “arrabiata” (angry) by the addition of hefty amounts of peperoncino. Another classic Roman pasta that can include peperoncino is Bucatini all’Amatriciana, although some chefs include only black pepper. While Rigatoni alla Gricia is only classically made with black pepper, I once had it made with a combination of black and red pepper, and it was delicious.
We love peperoncino for its ability to add flavor and kick to any dish. Join us on a tour of Sicily, there are sure to be some spicy dishes along the way!
Julia Terranova is a Brooklyn born, Italian-American student with a love of Rome and all things Italy. She spends her time cooking for friends and reading as many cookbooks as she can find.