Why do Italian restaurants make such a big deal out of pepper?

pepper photo for blog

Why do they keep the pepper off in a sacred place? They make such a big deal out of it. The table has a little white porcelain holder with sachets of brown sugar, white sugar, fake sugar – two different types of fake sugar actually, and salt, and of course ominous in its absence, the star of Italian cuisine PEPPER!

If there was no salt and I asked for some, I would get my own salt cellar or a small dish with an unhealthy helping of that historically relevant powder. But if  I should ask for pepper, there would be a “one moment please” reply, and a disappearance into the back to procure the precious spice. It feels like we should almost genuflect when it is brought out, a large wooden phallic-shaped device is maneuvered above your food and the large knob at its head is turned two or three times, if you look hard some tiny motes of dark dust will have landed on the food, the waiter appears to be saying “surely that’s enough?” and you reply to his tacit expression “That’s good, thank you” even though I would like some more, the guilt is too great, I don’t want to be greedy do I?

But wait a second, it’s just pepper, it’s not truffle. It’s a big yoke with a dollar’s worth of pepper corns inside of it, I bet those sachets of fake sugar cost more. And at this rate of usage, it must last for a week. You can buy these pepper corns anywhere around here, with great ease. They aren’t sought out by special pigs in deep leaves at the base of a swollen tree!

When my sandwich arrives – a small spinach omelette type of thing in a heated croissant – it’s pretty good. This is an Italian café at the corner of 10th Street and First Avenue, it is run by real Italians and the latte is authentic with a rich brown coffee cream on the top – it sets me up for the European vibe of the sandwich, it’s small and I’m fine with that, not that hungry anyway this morning. My eyes immediately scan the table and the ominous absence of pepper only leads to its greater importance. I don’t want to annoy the waiter, it’s breakfast, it feels inappropriate to ask him to bring it out into the sun from its resting place to the sidewalk where I listen to two New York women bullshitting each over-affectionately, and with rap music pouring out of every car stopped at the traffic lights; it seems sacrilegious to bring the pepper out here, just for my breakfast. So I just eat the bloody thing as it is, all the while thinking that it’s good but could use a sharp flavor to cut through the buttery croissant and add colour to the neutral tasting eggs. And you know that the waiter is holding, it’s written all over his face, he’s like an undercover cop, you know he’s got the power, you know he’s got a gun behind there, he doesn’t need to show it. He will only produce it if he has to.

The two women finish their espressos and leave, they kiss and hug, one of them would be honoured to be involved in whatever it is that the other one was proudly proffering, they walk away.

Five minutes later one of them returns and orders my sandwich. The pepper remains in its sanctuary though, awaiting the evening worship.

There are 4 comments on Why do Italian restaurants make such a big deal out of pepper?

  • Donnacha Kavanagh on

    My God, this is what I say EVERY TIME I GO OUT! Well put, Pierce, and can you imagine how rarely they bring out the vinegar?

    • It’s hilarious Donnacha, is it presentation? or some kind of control? It’s especially weird when the place is busy, they could save a lot of time by putting a small pepper mill on the table, just like we do at home.

  • Martin Mulligan on

    I think it harks back to when pepper was one of the most valuable spices to co e back from the far east to Venice, it’s so valuable that a cargo of it would pay a handsome profit and completely pay for the ship, so I think it was closely guarded in the restaurants a d this bit of theatre you have to endure sharks back to that.

  • My theory of why Italian recipes don’t call for black pepper is this. Old world Italian cuisine started well before Magellan arrived back from India, Southeast Asia (spice islands) and the coast of Africa where black pepper is native. Italian cuisine was already set in its ways and did not use black pepper as a spice, instead they used what they had locally like pepperoncini. Spices were very expensive and trading with Spain for spices was not necessary, because they were happy with the traditional flavors and seasonings they have already been using for generations. I got a tell you that nearly every time I see a Italian cook on TV they don’t use black pepper except in Cacio de Pepe. Especially Lidia Bastianich, I’ve never seen her use it and she’s about as old world Italian cuisine as you can get. I truly believe it’s a sin to use black pepper in their traditional dishes, it’s important that they don’t put black pepper on everything like everyone else. When I cook Italian food at home I NEVER use black pepper, I always use crushed red pepper flakes. It’s a pretty good theory right, I think it’s true 100%

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(c) Pierce Turner, 2019