If you’ve ever visited northern Italy, you most likely have never came across Red Pepper Flakes making their way onto slices of pizza, and you’ll find them added into the sauce either.
According to pizza historians (yes there is such a thing), the use of Red Pepper Flakes on pizza and pasta can be traced to the late 1800s in southern Italy, where the people of this region enjoyed adding a bit of spicy heat to their dishes (much more so than their northern countrymen). And this part of Italy is known for their spicy hot Pepperoncino chile. Researchers who have studied early South Italian immigration to America have found that it was common for these early immigrants to grow hot peppers in their backyard gardens, so adding them to their home made pizza seems quite logical.
Lombardi’s Pizza in New York is considered by many to be America’s first pizzeria and opened in 1905. During these early years, they catered to the large South Italian immigrant population in New York, and their first pizzas were actually called “tomato pies”. In a 2012 interview with John Brescio, the current owner of Lombardi’s Pizza, he talked about red pepper flakes - "We’ve always used them. In the beginning they were crumbled in a stainless steel bowl. And then there was a changeover in the 1950s to pepper flakes in the shakers."