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How Tiny, Curly Pepperonis Took Over NYC’s Pizza Market

Roni cups are dominating New York’s pizza scene, and it’s not just because of Instagram

Pepperoni pizza at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop.
The roni cups at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop
Alex Staniloff/Eater

Pepperoni pizza, classic as can be, has turned into a full-blown food trend in New York City. The specifics are important here: This isn’t the flat, silver dollar-sized pepperoni that many Americans are accustomed to, but smaller, thicker coins that curl into a bowl shape as they cook. The edges crisp and blacken, and a pool of grease — the subject of much fan admiration — forms in the meaty basin.

The roni cup, also known as “cup and char” pepperoni, has long been a hallmark of pizza in Buffalo and parts of the Midwest, but over the last seven years, it’s been taking over New York City. Once sparingly available, the tiny pepp can be spotted on slices at more than a dozen shops across New York — from Emmy Squared in Williamsburg to Mama’s Too on the Upper West Side. Many new restaurants, including Seppe on Staten Island, are now even forgoing traditional pepperoni from the outset.

One reason for the rise of the roni cup, restaurateurs and distributors say, is the introduction of a family-owned, Columbus, Ohio-based company called Ezzo Sausage Co., which entered the New York market via distributor Ace Endico in 2016. Since Emily and Emmy Squared became the first restaurants in the city to sell Ezzo roni cups, at least ten other pizzerias have followed, including Speedy Romeo and Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop.

But the other reason is wider dining trends, restaurateurs say: Not only do the cute, curly slices get more engagement on Instagram, diners in New York are now more and more willing to pay a premium for fancy pizza.

Though roni cups haven’t totally swallowed the NYC market, sales on flat pepperoni have gone down “a little bit” as more restaurants opt for cupping pepperoni, says Chris Cutillo, one of the managers of the distributor Conca D’Oro, which services the Tri-State area and sells pepperoni to pizzerias like Williamsburg Pizza and Massoni.

And roni cups often pay off for the restaurant. When Williamsburg Pizza added them — and began marketing its pepperoni more heavily — sales of a pepperoni pizza with mozzarella and tomato sauce rose by 75 percent.

“It’s been growing like crazy,” Cutillo says. “There were many points where we ran out of stock and our producers couldn’t keep up. It’s spread like wildfire.”

Patient zero for the New York City ronissance is probably Prince Street Pizza, multiple pizza shop owners say. It’s “the closest thing you can get” to Buffalo pizza outside of Buffalo, a city where the roni has long reigned supreme, according to Buffalo Everything author Arthur Bovino.

The restaurant opened in 2012 and has since become famous — both in real life and on Instagram — for its Spicy Spring square. (Indeed, Prince Street Pizza is currently pursuing legal action against another restaurant for what it says is a copycat slice.) The Spicy Spring is a thick square slice of pizza, chewy and piled with meaty cups of hot grease. Those signature roni cups are “custom cut” by a “well-known producer,” according to a spokesperson for the restaurant, though he declined to name it.

“Prince Street Pizza put roni cups on the map,” says Adam Kuban, the founding editor of Serious Eats and a veteran pizza blogger. “Their crazy overloaded pizza blew up on Instagram. Lots of pizzerias started seeing that and said it was Instagram gold.”

Prince Street Pizza’s Instagram
Prince Street Pizza’s Instagram feed is filled with roni cups
Prince Street Pizza/Instagram

But it wasn’t just organic social media growth that led to the current spate of roni cups; distributor Ace Endico’s introduction of Ezzo Sausage Co. to NYC accelerated the process.

Ezzo has been making cupping pepperoni since 1978 and selling it to parts of New York state since the early ’80s, mostly in the Buffalo area, but it hadn’t cracked New York City. That changed after Fortina’s Christian Petroni learned about the Ezzo pepperoni online, back when the restaurant had not yet opened in Brooklyn. The restaurateur asked Ace Endico to start carrying Ezzo — “I pretty much begged them,” Petroni says — and once the distributor agreed, Ezzo gained access to the boroughs, says Darren Ezzo, who runs national sales for the company.

“Christian I would say is the catalyst behind bringing [Ezzo] to the market in this part of the country,” says David Moore, an account executive at Ace Endico.

Pepperoni pizza at Emmy Squared
Emmy Squared’s pepperoni pie
Paul Crispin Quitoriano/Eater

Darren Ezzo says that Emily and Emmy Squared were the first New York City pizzerias to start using the company’s cupping pepperoni, starting in 2016 around the time that Emmy Squared opened. Matt Hyland, the executive chef and co-owner of Emily and Emmy Squared, had already been using cupping pepperoni from another brand at Emily, cutting it in-house. When the restaurant’s slicer broke, he asked Ace Endico if they had any pre-sliced cupping pepperoni, knowing too that this time-saving measure would be useful at the larger Emmy Squared.

Since then, Ezzo roni cups have appeared at Scarr’s Pizza, Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop, Beebe’s, Pizza School NYC, Speedy Romeo, Stiletto Pizza, Bocce Union Square, Bond 45, and Fortina in Downtown Brooklyn. Darren Ezzo says that roni cups accounted for 30 to 40 percent of its pepperoni production a few years ago. Now they’re almost even with flat pepperoni.

Other distributors and producers have been getting in on the game. Massoni, the restaurant in Manhattan’s Arlo Hotel once run by Dale Talde, has sourced its cupping pepperoni from Conca D’Oro since it opened in 2016. Lions & Tigers & Squares — a Detroit-style pizzeria from the Artichoke Pizza guys — opened in Chelsea in May 2018 with a proprietary roni cup made by Hormel. And Seppe Pizza Bar opened on Staten Island in December with them on the menu, though chef John Iovino wouldn’t disclose where they come from.

“It’s become an infestation, really,” says Paulie Giannone, who started using Ezzo roni cups at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop in September, a few months after it opened. “It’s gotten a little out of hand, but they are delicious.”

Seppe Pizza Bar Lily Brown/Seppe Pizza Bar
A pepperoni pie from Williamsburg Pizza sits in a cardboard takeout box Jessica Einstein/Williamsburg Pizza
Mama’s Too Mama’s Too [Official Photo]
Spicy pepperoni at Made in New York Pizza Ryan Sutton/Eater

From top left and clockwise, Seppe Pizza Bar, Williamsburg Pizza, Made in New York, and Mama’s Too

Though more aggressive distribution helped with availability, the social media appeal of the roni cups has undeniably increased demand. Hyland jokingly started a secret Instagram account dedicated to roni cups in 2016, reposting photos of other people’s cup and char pepperoni. It had a small following initially, and for half a year, he let it lie fallow. He started it up again in 2017 and this time it surged, going from a few hundred followers to nearly 13,000 today.

Prince Street Pizza, for its part, has more than 30,000 followers on Instagram as of publication time. It posts a combination of pizza glamour shots — many of them close-ups of the Spicy Spring — and pictures of celebrities who have come into the shop (Cynthia Nixon, Ryan Seacrest, Kim Kardashian’s best friend Jonathan Cheban).

Indeed, cup and char pepperoni is simultaneously adorable and indulgent, with its small size and glistening grease puddles. It’s visually interesting, each round a different variation on singed black edges and red, red meat.

“I think that people like something that’s a little more textural,” says Hyland, when asked why he thinks roni cups have blown up on Instagram. Most pizza toppings lie flat, but this pepperoni lifts off, adding a new dimension to the photo.

“And it’s full of grease, which is even better,” he says. “It’s that greasy twinkle sparkling in your picture.”

Despite the moment roni cups are having on social media, many pizzeria owners say that they’re just a better, higher quality option than flat pepperoni — little flavor bombs that can be scattered sparsely across a pie or loaded on for a truly explosive effect.

And restaurants and pizza fans are willing to pay extra to get them. Dennis Eschenberg of Williamsburg Pizza, which swapped out flat pepperoni for roni cups in the fall of 2018, says that pre-sliced cupping pepperoni costs the restaurant 75 percent more. Hyland of Emily and Emmy Squared estimates that it’s three to four times more expensive to work with Ezzo roni cups than with a mediocre flat pepperoni.

Williamsburg Pizza makes a profit on its pepperoni pizza, though it has slimmed its margins since it stopped using flat pepperoni and upgraded to roni cups. For customers, the price of adding pepperoni to a pie didn’t go up; it remains $3.50 extra, the same as it was when Williamsburg Pizza used flat pepperoni.

But since the advent of roni cups at its restaurants, orders for pepperoni pizza have shot up. Pepperoni slices are now Williamsburg Pizza’s third biggest seller, after its simple mozzarella and tomato slice and its grandma square. Previously it hadn’t cracked the top eight.

The proliferation of costly roni cups is also an effect of ongoing growth in the artisanal pizza movement. Many people are willing to pay more for fancy pizza, and that’s reflected in the toppings.

While it’s likely that roni cups will continue to spread across the city, it won’t be a complete takeover. Cutillo, for one, expects to see pushback from price-oriented shops that want to keep the cost of a slice low.

“Those cup and chars, they’re a premium item. They’re not cheap pepperoni,” says Cutillo. “A mom and pop pizzeria would never spend the money on it. They just want pepperoni to throw on top.”

Eliza Brooke, who has developed a persistent craving for roni cups, is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Vox’s The Goods.

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