Pepperoni is the most popular pizza topping in the U.S.—this will surprise nobody. But there are other things about pepperoni pizza that are more mysterious. For example, who invented pepperoni—and who first put it on a pizza—are two questions with no real clear-cut answer. 

Though “peperoni” is the Italian word for large bell peppers, it’s clear that whatever pepperoni’s origin story is, it was not first created in Italy. In fact, pepperoni remains an ingredient that is frowned upon in the Old World. Some traditionalists consider pepperoni to be a “bastardized” pizza topping—but this has obviously had zero effect on Americans’ love affair with the topping.

Some claim pepperoni was invented in 1919 by Italian immigrants in New York City, including John Mariani, a food writer and historian who wrote a book, How Italian Food Conquered the World. Another source, however, claims that pepperoni was first mentioned in 1908 in an article on the purity of sausages that appeared in The Gateway, a Michigan-based magazine about arts and culture, in 1908. 

Related: Is Columbus-Style Pizza a Real Thing, or a Windy City Wannabe?

No matter its origins, it seems a virtual certainty that pepperoni’s first appearance on pizza happened in the U.S. A short 2015 article in the Columbus Dispatch about Massey’s Pizza, still a successful regional chain in the Columbus, Ohio, area, contains a throwaway sentence stating that Massey’s “introduced pepperoni as a topping.” This is supported by an alleged Massey quote where he said, in response to whether or not he knew what he was doing when he first put pepperoni on a pizza, “Sure I do! Nobody in Chicago, New York or anywhere ever used pepperoni!”

Massey’s Pizza

Oddly, however, a history of Massey’s Pizza on the pizzeria’s website makes no mention of this claim. Whether or not Massey’s was the first to put pepperoni on pizza in the U.S., the brand is credited with starting “Columbus-style pizza,” which is a thin-crust pie similar to Chicago’s Tavern-style pizza. Columbus-style circular pizza is filled to the edge with heaps of pepperoni and cut into small rectangles, separating it from other styles of pie. 

Other sources, including Colin Caplin, pizza scholar and author of New Haven Apizza, presume that pepperoni first appeared on pizzeria menus as an appetizer. Caplin took this assumption a step further in an interview with Thrillist, saying that its trajectory went from appetizer to pizza topping: “That’s how a lot of toppings made it into pizza in the first place: people experimenting.” 

Caplin asserts that the earliest known evidence of pepperoni on pizza in the U.S. is found in a photo of a 1950 menu at The Spot in New Haven, Connecticut (The Spot would later be bought by the ownership of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana). Could The Spot have been the first pizzeria to have ever featured a pepperoni pizza?

Wherever it first appeared, pepperoni pizza’s ascent can be credited to several different brands, including chains like Pizza Hut and Domino’s. As they rapidly grew in the 1960s and 70s, the chains found pepperoni to be a topping ideally suited for mass distribution: it was cheap, salty and easily packaged.

In sum, like so many human inventions, pepperoni pizza was probably “created” by several different pizzerias that came up with the idea on their own while experimenting. For example, this is how bread came to be: civilizations all around the world that had no knowledge of one another independently created bread. We may never know who was first, but we all can be grateful that it happened. It also means the invention of bread was a near inevitability: sooner or later, somebody would’ve figured out how to make it. The same is probably true of pepperoni pizza.

Food & Ingredients