As I scan the menus for restaurant openings, I’m always transported back to my time as a line cook. The resurgence of continental cooking is felt everywhere these days: Seafood restaurants like Dear Jane lean heavily into crab louie and trout amandine. Piccata is chic again, scampi’s sexy, everybody is court-ordered to do an iceberg wedge, and clams casino are back. This is all food I remember cooking with severe angst at country clubs and Italian-American restaurants, so it’s amusing to watch it all become stylish and cashed in on by trend-focused restaurant groups. But as I scour many of these menus, I’ve noticed an appetizer consistently left off the bill of fare: stuffed banana peppers, a regional delicacy you have to try for yourself.
Banana peppers are often used interchangeably with Hungarian wax peppers, but the two are quite different, despite their shared yellow complexion and slender banana shape. Hungarian wax peppers are said to be noticeably hotter, but I have found the heat index of both peppers to be quite unpredictable: Hungarian wax peppers run from 1,000–15,000 SHU while banana peppers fall more into the 500 SHU range, though I have had some banana peppers knock me on my ass.
Like most peppers, banana peppers grow best in the summer and can be found at farmer’s markets, Amish stands, and grocers in the hotter months in the western areas of the mid-Atlantic region. You can also find them at some grocery stores in that area year-round, likely shipped in from much warmer climates. A fresh, peak season pepper tastes crisp, spicy, and fruity, a treat filled with robust flavor.
The banana pepper is also emblematic of the region’s Italian-American cooking as a whole. It’s often sliced into rings and used to top pizzas, or they’re used in salads and calzones, or placed on an antipasto platter. One of my favorite dishes of all time, beans and greens, was served at the first restaurant I ever worked at, a place predictably called La Dolce Vita; it came topped with a whole deep-fried banana pepper.
But one of the best preparations of banana peppers has to be stuffed. They’re up there with fried calamari, clams casino, and mozzarella sticks—the type of menu stalwart I always knew I would see at such restaurants. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out they aren’t a nationally renowned dish.
Stuffed banana peppers are said to be a western New York speciality. This makes sense, since I see them regularly where I grew up, in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, less than four hours away from Buffalo.
At Osteria 166 in Buffalo, the stuffed banana peppers are served on a bed of red sauce and come filled with ricotta, mozzarella, peperoncino, and parsley—almost like a fried pepper cheese stick drenched in marinara. Tappo serves its banana peppers filled with four cheeses and Italian sausage, then places them on a bed of garlic bread before topping off the whole thing with a fried egg. The menu at Buffalo Chophouse lists sausage, cheese, and tomato cream. Giacobbi’s come broiled and served with crostini.
In Buffalo, red sauce and crostini appear to be optional and interchangeable elements of the dish, but I feel marinara most accurately captures its spirit. After all, the stuffed banana pepper is a product of Italian-American red sauce restaurants.
It’s good bar food, too. In my hometown of New Castle, Pennsylvania, stuffed banana peppers are sold at a few taverns in town. You can’t eat them with your hands, but it’s still the type of thing you want to wash down with a cold draft beer at a dank dive or the bar of an Italian restaurant.
How far does the stuffed banana pepper’s reach go? In Youngstown and Cleveland, it makes an appearance at many area restaurants. Scrounging through the menus of notable Italian restaurants in Philadelphia, however, I get the sense that stuffed peppers are outside their scope of cultural significance. Many of the menus in Philly lean toward clams casino, shrimp scampi, steamed mussels—more New England fare. Stuffed peppers, I believe. are more of a rust belt Italian thing, specifically the Northeast rust belt.
Buffalo chef Andrew Divencenzo is credited with inventing the dish at Billy Ogden’s in Lovejoy. He had an awesome method for making his peppers, which included stuffing them with cheese and anchovy (no meat), then frying them in a pan, then using the same oil to sauté some garlic and parsley, which is then spooned over the top of the pan-fried peppers. No red sauce, and none needed. Here’s the recipe. If you want to go further down the stuffed pepper rabbit hole, read this article, which asserts Buffalo’s rightful claim to the dish.
Me? I grew up eating stuffed banana peppers with ground Italian sausage, anchovy, Romano cheese, breadcrumb, and egg, served on a bed of red sauce. These peppers are a bit more homely, and can even be served at room temperature. For Christmas a few years back (pictured above), I used the trimmings from a prime rib to make the stuffing. Where I grew up, meat has always been the filling of a stuffed banana pepper. Conversely, Buffalo seems to lean toward cheese-stuffed peppers (and some modern vegetarian versions). However they’re made, there’s something eye-popping about a seared, stuffed, bright yellow pepper—a flag of sorts for the region’s specific brand of Italian-American cuisine.
This dish is alluring not only because of the peppers’ sleek and colorful appearance, but also their elusiveness. Of all the restaurant groups and chefs cashing in on the Italian-American continental cooking craze, I have yet to see a stuffed banana pepper dish grace the menu—they’re far more regional than I originally thought. And that’s one thing we don’t hear enough about: regional Italian-American cooking. A lot of Italian restaurants borrow from specific regions of Italy, but I’d love to see these restaurants splice regional delicacies from across the United States. Imagine a menu with California pizza, a Provel cheese chicken parm, stuffed banana peppers, and broccoli rabe. I’d be all in.
So why don’t you see stuffed banana peppers outside of this small area of the rust belt? My theory: Though stuffed peppers as a concept seemingly stretch across every part of the world, they just aren’t considered very stylish. We can’t escape the fact that Americans’ perception of stuffed peppers—that is, stuffed bell peppers filled with rice and ground meat—is that of practical home cooking and nothing more. Search “stuffed peppers” and results show up ranging from Old Fashioned Stuffed Bell Peppers to Dad’s Stuffed Bell Peppers. It’s the type of recipe you ripped out of a magazine in the ’70s.
But at Italian-American restaurants stretching from Buffalo outward, places where restaurant openings don’t always get ostentatious press coverage, the dish is worthy of a sit-down meal. The slender, spicy, bright banana pepper is attractive and enticing. It’s a rare appetizer, and one I hope continues to journey outside of Buffalo.