One of the most beautiful colors of summer in Southern Italy is the deep red of chili peppers, strung together and hung out to dry—especially in Calabria. This region, at the tip of the boot of Italy, is the main producer and consumer of chili pepper, or peperoncino as it is called in Italian.
The chili pepper plant belongs to the Capsicum genus, which is part of the same family (Solanaceae) as tomatoes. In Italy, Capiscuum annuumi, which is known as peperoncino di Cayenna, is the most common hot pepper grown. On the Scoville scale, which measures the “heat” of peppers, peperoncino di Cayenna ranges in the middle. In southern Italy, these little red peppers are often called diavoletti (little devils); in Calabria and Molise regions, they are called diavulillu; and in the region of Basilicata, they are called diavulicchiu.
Typically, hot countries develop hot, spicy cuisines as a natural means of cooling down the body through perspiration. It’s a fact that hot pepper is present in every tropical and subtropical cuisine. Chili peppers were grown as a food crop as early as 4000 BC in Central America; but it wasn’t until the arrival of the Spanish in the mid-16th century that the plant was introduced to the rest of the world. Very quickly, trade routes began carrying chili peppers to Europe, Africa, India, the Middle East, and Asia.
Today, this spice seems to be growing in popularity around the globe. In northern Italy, where chili pepper was virtually unknown just a couple of generations ago, peperoncino is now more and more appreciated, and incorporated into Italian cuisine. Peperoncino adds spice and flavor not only to the simple foods of southern Italy, but for some people, this hot spice becomes almost addictive. Spicy food lovers add it to virtually everything – fish and vegetable pasta sauces, soups, and stews, as well as egg dishes. As a general rule of thumb, peperoncino is not recommended for delicate and creamy preparations, but is more suitable for robust sauces and recipes.
In southern Italy, ground chili peppers are sometimes added to salumi and cheeses. Also, hot peppers are preserved in oil to produce flavorful, spicy oil.