Soffatelli, pastachetti, pepperoni, diavolini

It starts with a link Jon Lighter supplied on ADS-L to a story about the Olive Garden restaurant chain faking Italian words to be “culinary forward”:

Olive Garden tries getting back to basics
By Sandra Pedicini, Orlando Sentinel [7/11/11]

So you didn’t know what soffatelli and pastachetti were when you saw them on the Olive Garden menu recently? Don’t feel badly. Neither, it appears, do Italian chefs — or even Italians in general, for that matter.

The dishes with made-up names were too unfamiliar and fell flat, contributing to two quarters of disappointing sales at the chain.

… Earlier this year one of its pasta dishes featured pear and gorgonzola, a combination found at pricier Italian restaurants such as Antonio’s La Fiamma in Maitland.

But for Olive Garden, Darden Chief Executive Officer Clarence Otis told analysts earlier this year, it was too “culinary forward.” [several ADS-Lers have wondered about the expression culinary forward]

Olive Garden followed that up with dishes called soffatelli and pastachetti. Those names don’t turn up in a look through Italian cookbooks or Italian dictionaries and in Google searches they appear in the context of Olive Garden dishes. [AMZ: same with soffitelli and pastichetti, in case you thought it was just a spelling issue.]

Asked if Olive Garden invented the names, spokeswoman Heidi Schauer said in an email that they “are rooted in the Italian inspiration our chefs draw from when developing these dishes.”

Otis described pastachetti as a dish that’s “not as familiar in the states as some other things we could do” in an interview with CNBC.

“Well, I’d have to go to my marketing people, but it’s a pillow — it’s a pillowed pasta” similar to ravioli, he said. (The dish was lasagna squares filled with cheese.)

Now Olive Garden is promoting a special for a more common pasta: ravioli.

Back to the linguistic drawing-board!

Larry Horn then pointed out a possible parallel to pepperoni (the tremendously popular pizza topping), apparently another American invention, and Wilson Gray added chop suey — both foods whose English names have some basis in the language of their country of origin (even though the foods themselves do not). Horn linked to a New York Times story (of 2/2/11, by Julia Moskin) suggesting that the smoky pepperoni sausage may have had an origin in German foodstuffs, despite its Italianate name. An excerpt:

Across the United States, artisanal pizza joints are opening faster than Natalie Portman movies. But inside those imported ovens, pepperoni — by far America’s most popular pizza topping — is as rare as a black swan.

In these rarefied, wood-fired precincts, pizzas are draped with hot soppressata and salami piccante, and spicy pizza alla diavola is popular. At Boot and Shoe Service in Oakland, Calif., there is local-leek-and-potato pizza. At Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn, dried cherry and orange blossom honey pizza. At Motorino in the East Village, brussels sprouts and pancetta. But pepperoni pizza? Geddoutahere!

What, exactly, is pepperoni? It is an air-dried spicy sausage with a few distinctive characteristics: it is fine-grained, lightly smoky, bright red and relatively soft. But one thing it is not: Italian.

“Purely an Italian-American creation, like chicken Parmesan,” said John Mariani, a food writer and historian who has just published a book with the modest title: “How Italian Food Conquered the World.” “Peperoni” is the Italian word for large peppers, as in bell peppers, and there is no Italian salami called by that name, though some salamis from Calabria and Apulia are similarly spicy and flushed red with dried chilies. The first reference to pepperoni in print is from 1919, Mr. Mariani said, the period when pizzerias and Italian butcher shops began to flourish here.

… But some of the most respected meatheads in the country are beginning to take pepperoni seriously.

“I can’t make salami fast enough as it is, and now the pizza chefs are begging me for pepperoni,” said Paul Bertolli, founder and self-proclaimed “curemaster” of Fra’ Mani, the salumi specialist in Oakland. Mr. Bertolli is in a research-and-development phase on a pepperoni, because of demand from expert pizzaiolos like Chris Bianco of Bianco in Phoenix and Craig Stoll of Delfina in San Francisco. “There’s nothing quite like that spicy, smoky taste with pizza,” he said.

Mr. Bertolli believes that pepperoni’s smokiness, beef content and fine grind are more characteristic of German sausages like Thüringer, suggesting a possible Midwestern connection. “I’ve never seen a smoked sausage anywhere in Italy,” he said.

At this point I turned to the OED (specifically the OED3 entry of Sept. 2005) for lexicographic enlightenment:

Etymology:  Apparently < Italian peperoni, plural of peperone, denoting any of various peppers (a1735), chilli pepper (a1889 or earlier) < classical Latin piper (see pepper n.) + –one suffix.

Although quot. 1888 suggests an Italian origin, the Italian word is apparently not attested in this sense.

A kind of hard sausage originally made in Italy, consisting of beef and pork highly seasoned with pepper and other spices. Also in extended use (freq. humorous).

1888    Times 21 Sept. 4/6   There were peperoni, sometimes called diavolini [AMZ: hot peppers], and poponi. [AMZ: poponi are melons]

1893    Scribner’s Mag. Jan. 54/1   Where the oyster..mongers and their wives, the sulphur-water vendors, fryers of polipi [AMZ: octopus] and peperoni, congregate.

1938    Sausage & Ready-to-serve Meats (Inst. Meat Packing, Univ. Chicago) 24   Pepperoni.

1977    Custom Car Nov. 67/3   The only action required is a wink, and wham! out comes his pepperoni!

1994    Amer. Spectator Mar. 43/1   The bareheaded troops pile out for a Coke and unavoidably kosher pizza, meaning only vegetables and no pepperoni on the cheese.

The 1888 and 1893 cites seem to me to be clearly references to peppers, not any kind of sausage or salami, so the first relevant cite is from 1938 (and American); Mariani should share his 1919 cite with the OED.

A photo of diavolini, in particular stuffed diavolini:

with a recipe:

“Chillis stuffed with Tomatoes & Anchovies”

These spicy peppers are stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes, olives and anchovies, then preserved in olive oil. They make a wonderful antipasto when served with some sliced prosciutto, salami, cheeses and some crusty bread.


chilli peppers, extra virgin olive oil, sundried tomatoes, olives, anchovies, herbs, vinegar, salt.

Diavolini, of course, just means ‘little devils’, so the name is available for all sorts of foodstuffs — in particular, for a kind of pasta that looks (to some eyes) like devil’s horns. In a package and up close:

Keeping up the spicy theme, one food dictionary identifies diavolini as:

Italy Small fried spicy rice cakes

Diavolini are also a confection, a type of nonpareil (shown here in a bag):

On nonpareils, from Wikipedia:

Nonpareils are a decorative confection of tiny balls made with sugar and starch, traditionally an opaque white but now available in many colors. Their origin is uncertain, but they may have evolved out of the pharmaceutical use of sugar, as they were a miniature version of comfits. The French name has been interpreted to mean they were “without equal” for intricate decoration of cakes, desserts, and other sweets, and the elaborate pièces montées constructed as table ornaments.

… In the United States, traditional nonpareils gave way for most purposes by the mid 20th century to “sprinkles” (known to many as “jimmies”), confections nearly as small but usually oblong rather than round and soft rather than brittle. Like nonpareils, their function is more decorative than gustatory as their actual taste is indistinct, and the products they are applied to are usually themselves very high in sugar.

And on sprinkles:

Sprinkles, hundreds and thousands, or jimmies are very small pieces of confectionery used as a decoration or to add texture to desserts—typically cupcakes, cookies, doughnuts, ice cream, frozen yogurt, and some puddings. The candies, which are produced in a variety of colors, are usually too small to be eaten individually.

In any case, diavolini is not a synonym for what we now know in English as pepperoni, though the spiciness of pepperoni clearly is related to spicy peppers like diavolini in the recipe above.

8 Responses to “Soffatelli, pastachetti, pepperoni, diavolini”

  1. wakablogger Says:

    General Tsao’s chicken and Italian sodas come to mind as well…

  2. Ann Burlingham Says:

    “Culinary forward” sits next to “fashion forward”, surely? And the Italian-Americans also brought us chicken (and artichokes) French. “Soffitelli” must have originated while staying at a luxury hotel.

  3. Victor Steinbok Says:

    Ah, you beat me to the punch. I’ve been working on “pepperoni” since this morning and came to the same conclusions. However, tracking down relevent references takes time and I had to pause for a couple of hours–or 10. In any case, to make this short, I have “pepperoni” back to 1913 and it’s specifically listed as “unsmoked summer sausage”, along with “Italian Salami, Milanese, D’Arles, Genoa, Lyon”. So if the evidence of “pepperoni” not being Italian is the fact that it’s “smoked”, this evidence is non-existent. Of course, that double “p” is a much better clue.

    On the other point, concerning “diavolini”, I also agree with the observation. However, I believe it is a mistake to list “poponi” as “melons”. In fact, a quick search for “poponi” shows a picture of stuffed peppers very similar to “diavolini”. The difference is relevant, however–diavolini is the kind of long narrow chili pepper with a sharp tip (unlike peperoncini, for example, which has a rounded tip similar to a tiny bell pepper); poponi, on the other hand, is stuffed cherry peppers. Either way, peperoni appears to be the correct overarching category for both varieties, provided the peppers are large enough. Similarly, the second OED reference identifies octopus fried with peppers, which may very well have been a common dish at the time–the combination still shows up in dishes like brodetto.

    There is also a 1907 catch for “pepperoni”, but it is not clear at all what is meant–“pepperoni” is paired with potatoes and rolled on the ground (?!!). I have no idea if it’s peppers, sausages or anything in between. Either way, the OED is wrong pairing “peperoni” and “pepperoni”.

  4. Victor Steinbok Says:

    OK… just unearthed a 1908 reference that list pepperoni along with other old-world sausages of Italian, German, French and Dutch origin. [Social History of the Sausage. The Gateway, May 1908. p. 6 — ] This doesn’t clear place “pepperoni” in Italy, but it does push the date back and suggest that it was a perfectly ordinary–if not well-known–delicatessen product along with other sausages whose origins are better known.

    On the other hand, the spelling of “pepperoni” for Italian peppers–both from Turin and from Naples, which is considerably divergent environment–exists in print from the 1850s to 1916 (at least). This suggest that even the spelling issue is not as simple as originally claimed.

    It is not surprising that OED is often less than precise in tracking down specialized terms–whether it’s law, architecture or ethnic foods or culinary terminology. But I can still have it as a pet peeve.

  5. Licia Says:

    Indeed, the names soffatelli and pastachetti sound totally fake to a native Italian speaker!

    I was curious to see what they might look like and I found that soffatelli [is it a plural noun also in English?] appear to be what we call fagottini (“little bundles”, from fagotto). I understand Olive Garden might prefer an alternative name, yet I cannot figure out where soffatelli comes from, maybe it was inspired by sofficini, a frozen food product marketed by Findus (Bird’s Eye) and very popular in Italy? However, sofficini look like breaded empanadas but made with a much softer (soffice) pastry, whereas soffatelli appear to be made with puff pastry. Maybe Olive Garden brainstormed around the idea of “puffing up” and came up with the Italian verb soffiare (“puff” as in “blow”) instead of gonfiarsi?

    I cannot think of any Italian dish even vaguely similar to pastachetti (in Italian cuisine, fillings and sauces should be a complement to pasta and not the other way round!). The name pastachetti looks like a blend of pasta + pacchetti (“pasta parcels”), combined according to the English word order. Incidentally, I think Italians would expect pacchetti to be made with pastry rather than pasta, e.g. pacchetti di pasta sfoglia (puff pastry) or pacchetti di pasta fillo, which look quite similar to fagottini.

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