The southern Italian city of Matera is characterized by its distinctive sassi, rocky dwellings carved into the rugged tan slopes that have been occupied by humans for millennia. Part of the beauty of this place is its rough and unforgiving landscape—the historic center has doubled as ancient Jerusalem in eight motion pictures, in fact, including Passion of the Christ—and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a European Capital of Culture for 2019. Still, the impression is of a windswept medieval mountain town ready to defend itself from hoards of invaders.
In January, the invaders were two cold and footsore Americans. A few days after New Year’s, a winter gale propelled my friend and I through Matera’s meandering and eerily empty alleys and into a small bar, where glowing lanterns and an array of local beers beckoned.
We shook off our jackets, squeezed around a table and ordered a mix of regional specialties: bruschette with sheep cheeses and wild mushrooms, crunchy taralli crackers, and a mound of quick-fried chile peppers served on a strip of smooth amber paper. These dark, glistening, crinkled red tubes were not spicy but both smoky and sweet, with a thin skin that dissolved into crispy shards. Our fingers shamelessly chased these small pieces around the table so as not to lose a bite.
I was told that these peperoni cruschi (“crunchy”) were a particular kind of pepper found only in a few nearby towns, sun-dried and then lightly fried in olive oil. A few days later I returned to the bar to sample them again, only to find it closed.
Fast forward a few months to my daily train ride to work. This trip I’m nose-deep in a book chronicling another peppery research odyssey. Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail (Chelsea Green, 2011; $19.95 paperback), a collaborative effort of Kurt Michael Friese (a chef), Gary Paul Nabhan (an ethnobotanist) and Kraig Kraft (an agroecologist), explores how a changing climate and food culture may affect the vast range of chile peppers that have evolved over the millennia. While many already have disappeared, the book cites the success story of one pepper that spread from an Italian immigrant’s Connecticut garden all across the United States.
The story goes that these plants crossed the Atlantic in 1887 with the Nardello (formerly Nardiello) family, natives of the Basilicata region, in the arch of Italy’s boot. The pepper was passed down from one generation to the next before it was donated to the Seed Savers Exchange—it’s now found in seed catalogues as Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Pepper. Its thin skin is fiery red, but it lacks capsaicin and therefore tastes light and savory, with only a hint of smoky warmth.
The name was enough to jog memories of my mother’s garden in Warwick, where throughout my childhood she trialed all varieties of heirloom vegetables, from wildly named tomatoes (one of my favorites was Cherokee Purple) to chile peppers. I remembered being bemused by the name “Jimmy Nardello,” wondering who this man was, picturing an eccentric, elderly Italian stooped over a backyard garden not unlike our own. I don’t remember how we ate the peppers—certainly not sun-dried and fried with a cold glass of beer on the side—but I was almost immediately certain that these were the exact same peppers I had savored in Matera.
Delving deeper into this unexpected connection, I confirmed that various iterations of the Nardello family saga consistently place them in Basilicata. I also learned peperoni cruschi are cooked peperoni di Senise, a chile exclusively grown in the municipality of Senise and designated parts of Matera and Potenza in Basilicata. This specificity is so important that the peppers have been granted I.G.P. (Indication of Geographic Protection) status under the Italian national food certification system, recognized throughout the European Union as a legal standard of quality linked to locale, similar to the designation of origin backing fine cheeses, prosecco and other specialty products.
It’s curious, and a bit ironic, that these peppers, so regionally particular in Italy, have proliferated in the United States.
It’s curious, and a bit ironic, that these peppers, so regionally particular in Italy, have proliferated in the United States, where heirloom varieties are shared by seed banks, swaps and catalogues (including Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, which added Jimmy Nardello’s pepper to its collection in 2005). No doubt the Nardello family’s efforts to preserve a link with the Old Country played a role in the crop’s successful distribution. Yet, this chile’s real roots are in the Americas, as are the roots of that other Mediterranean culinary necessity, the tomato.
So, despite the geographic protection this chile has acquired, its evolving story hops from Central America (possibly onto one of Columbus’s boats) to mountainous southern Italy, then to the United States (possibly in an immigrant’s pocket), where it evokes memories of a snowy night in a Matera bar and my mother’s garden on a summer afternoon.
Eliot Gee, a Hudson Valley native, is currently working in Rome for an organization that researches agro-biodiversity worldwide. He is particularly focused on sharing knowledge about the health benefits of indigenous and wild edible plants. Contact email@example.com.