Best Hot Sauce in the World? My Interview with Johnny Rocco of New "Rocco's Superior Pepper Elixir"

Johnny Rocco dishes on why his hot sauce is going to incinerate the competition (by not being so damn spicy), and why expensive organic foods are a sham.

September 12, 2012 4:14 PM EDT | By Anthony Smith
Rocco's Peppers
Rocco's Superior Pepper Project is our Kickstarter of the Day! (Photo: Rocco's Superior Pepper)

When we first wrote about Rocco's Superior Pepper Project, we called it a Latin-American hot sauce, and waxed poetic about how excited we were for one that sought to change the game. We were wrong-- Rocco's Superior Pepper Elixir is an Italian hot sauce, and even if Kickstarter makes everything seem newfangled, Johnny Rocco's family has been making hot sauces for a hundred years.

I spoke to the young entrepreneur about what it means to make hot sauces in the era of spicy novelty. This is what he had to say.

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FoodNRecipe's Anthony Smith: What inspired you to make a hot sauce?

Rocco's Superior Pepper Project's Johnny Rocco: That is a good question. You know, it's something that's been passed down through generations in my family. And I think I've been really trying to capture what once was, you know, that old tradition.

AS: How many generations has your family been making hot sauce?

JR: Actually it's been made for over a hundred years in my family. My family is from Catanzaro, Calabria, the Southern region of Italy where they have a pepper festival there. It's a region that's known for its hot peppers.

AS: So this is going to be an Italian-influenced hot sauce?

JR: Yes, it is. That's the basis of it. That and you know, I have to say I've never really encountered much of anything resembling an Italian hot sauce. There are so many nationalities out there that are dabbling in hot sauces - it has Latin influences and Asian influence- but I've never seen anything from Southern Europe.

AS: Other than the Italian influence, what makes your hot sauce different from any other hot sauce?

JR: There's a couple things. One, I do an old practice where I actually smoke the peppers before I process them into the sauce. A lot of people, when they taste it, they say it has a meaty taste to it, that it tastes like bacon, but in actuality it's because the peppers are slowly, slowly smoked. I have a nice sized smoker that I use.

I also don't just use hot peppers. I mix my peppers. I use an organic italian hot pepper, the traditional one, but I also use a sweet bell pepper, and it gives it a totally different flavor profile. It's not just heat-- there's a lot of flavor going on there.

With the Italian hot sauce, a traditional one, I use fennel, so it's compared to that sausage-and pepper taste. Not many people hear fennel in a hot sauce and think it sounds appealing, but it's traditionally used and just not seen all that much in the U.S.

AS: What do you see going with your vanilla-bean habanero sauce and your black cherry chocolate habanero sauce?

Well, I mean, you know, it's a little novelty, when I first started doing this, taking the old recipes and looking at them. I decided that I wanted to throw in a twist. I deal with an organic farm out in Long Island, and they have these beautiful habanero peppers, so I said I've got to do something with this. I like contrasting flavors, I always like sweet-versus-savory, and I think people have been executing that very well. You see it in dishes all the time, sweet versus savory, and that's really what I want to accomplish with these hot sauces, like the vanilla bean habanero. It has all the elements of the habanero and heat, but buck of the organic vanilla bean, it's got a lot going on. It's my girlfriend's favorite.

It started just for fun, but my friends said you've gotta keep doing this. It's limited edition, but my main goal is to produce a condiment that's really on the table and you can put it on just about anything. That's the goal. With those two sauces, you really can't do that, but they have a fun flavor factor to them.

The chocolate cherry habanero is really interesting because there's a pepper out there that is a chocolate habanero, and it has a flavor profile that's closer to coffee, and when you add that to a black cherry-- which I smoke-- it adds this really beautiful taste to it. It's something that goes really well together.

If you eat the chocolate cherry habanero hot sauce with a steak dish, or a nice portobello mushroom, it brings out all these flavors that are already there.

It was kind of neat, but I didn't want to get over my head with the novelty sauces. One of the things that frustrates me is when everyone wants me to enter my sauces in competitions, or to a store in the West Village that specializes in hot sauces. I'm very quick to say no, because that's the sort of novelty aspect that I hate, when we see hot sauces with names like "Ass Murder" that go for high Scoville units and just want to burn, or sauces that boast that it's a ghost pepper with mango. You're not going to taste any of that mango through the heat.

It always has to be about flavor. If flavor's not the first thing that grabs me, I'm not interested. Heat will always come. You're using hot peppers, so heat will always come. But it's the flavor that you have to capture, and if you can't do that, then go ahead and make the hot sauce with the donkey on the bottle.

AS: Where can we find your hot sauce when Rocco's Superior Pepper Project is up and running?

JR: We're talking to Whole Foods and Fairway, we're trying to push it to that level.

I've been asking myself, you know, what are we gonna do with the design of the bottles? How do we get this all out there? The more complex you get, the more cost rises. And when I look at organic ingredients and everything that's spread out, one of the things that really irks me is the upcharging on organic.

If you go to organic farms, and there are so many that are within arms reach on Long Island, in Upstate New York, and in Connecticut, if you actually go to those farms yourself, there's no upcharge. What you pay for your produce is pretty much what you'd expect to pay for any produce. So this pepper sauce was made with the same thought process. I don't want to make a sauce that charges the consumer more for being organic. For me, that's unforgivable. When companies do that, it's a sham. I wanted to put a sauce out there with the finest ingredients at a reasonable price.

Doing my research, I found that the average price for a hot sauce is between 2 and 5 dollars. I'm proud to say that we're within that range.

Check out Rocco's Superior Pepper Project and give to his project here. If Johnny's passion and knowledge about the tradition of making hot sauces wasn't enough to get you going, I don't know what is.

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