LONG HOTS are to peppers what the Liberty Bell is to American history: iconic, necessary and impossible to live without.
Long hots deliver just the right amount of heat along with full-on pepper flavor that turns an average sandwich into an eye-popping culinary bomb.
A common accessory in homemade Italian comfort cooking, long hots are generally fried, or roasted with olive oil, garlic and salt and served whole, skin and seeds intact. Because they vary so much in spiciness, the sly little devils play peek-a-boo with the Scoville scale, the accepted way to chart the heat of chili peppers.
"They're the Russian roulette of peppers. Every time we eat them, the conversation starts around the table, 'How hot is this one going to be?' " said Brad Spence, chef and co-owner with Marc Vetri of Amis Trattoria. The Haddonfield native isn't Italian by heritage, but grew up around Italians in South Jersey.
"I grew up eating long hots every Sunday, and we still do in my family," he said.
Judging from Restaurant Week earlier this month, chefs around town are discovering these favored capsicums and adding them into menus in surprising and interesting ways.
Chef Eli Kulp, who commands the kitchen at Fork and High Street on Market, makes a long-hot chermoula, a sauce and marinade common in Morocco, which he pairs with squash hummus.
Chef Eli Collins, at Pub & Kitchen, uses them to spike a simmer of mussels in corn pimento broth. At Zahav, fried potatoes arrive with sharp Kashkaval cheese, white anchovies and roasted long hots. And the peppery goodness shows up with fried calamari and tomato jam at the Oyster House.
"They're a very versatile pepper, but also tricky, because the heat can vary substantially," said Kulp, who also has taken over the operations at A.kitchen and A.bar, on Rittenhouse Square. "Basically we assume they're going to fall somewhere between an ancho and a jalapeno for heat. We pickle and char them to add a smoky acidity to the long hot. Then we serve as a side to our sandwiches or as a garnish for our grilled striped-bass collar."
Although his Paris Bistro, in Chestnut Hill, is fully French, and Heirloom Fine American Cookery serves seasonal American fare, Al Paris is Italian by heritage. And he loves him some long hots.
"My single most-loved long hots are cooked low and slow with olive oil and garlic in a 250-degree oven," said the chef. "Put them in a cold scrambled-egg sandwich on Italian bread and take them with you fishing at 5 a.m. By 8, you're ready to wash them down with a cold glass of pinot grigio!"
Chef Lynn Rinaldi seconds the notion that oven-roasted long hots are best eaten with bread and plenty of olive oil. She serves them on the table at Paradiso, in South Philly, an accompaniment to everything from braised tripe to pasta.
Over at Pennsylvania 6, on 13th Street, chef Marc Plessis roasts long hots and chops them into bite-size bits that he uses in a vinaigrette - think salsa verde. The sauce adds a zippy accent to a slab of yellowfin tuna, which the chef poaches in a ham-infused olive oil.
He also likes to stuff them, as you would a bell pepper, with fillings of crab, corn, smoked chicken or seasoned lamb.
A proud tradition
Although long hots adapt well to all kinds of ingredients, their classic role is much loved in and around Philadelphia. They are a tradition at John's Roast Pork, a South Philly institution of roast pork and cheesesteak greatness since 1930. Three days a week, Victoria Bucci makes it her business to fry the long-hot peppers. She goes through two cases of peppers a week, minimum.
"I tell her to let one of our employees do it, but she won't hear of it," said her husband and co-owner, John Bucci Jr.
After the peppers are stemmed, Victoria fries the peppers in cast-iron frying pans, in olive oil with crushed red pepper, salt and garlic powder. "It's a pain in the butt because the oil can splatter and you can get burned," said Bucci Jr. "But people love them, and my wife takes so much pride in that."
Long hots adorned the sharp provolone cheesesteak that earned John's a spot on "Adam Richman's Best Sandwich in America" on the Travel Channel.
"Long hots are a tradition here," said Bucci Jr., who is testing tradition by changing John's hours come March, when the sandwich shop celebrates its 85th birthday.
Instead of its usual closing time of 3 p.m., customers will be able to get their roast pork with long hots until 7 every day. What that means for Victoria and her roasting regime is still to be determined.