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AMERICA'S BEST

Joe Knows What's Hot

August 17, 1995|KATHIE JENKINS

The habanero pepper is widely known as the hottest chile available. But what about the red savina? For those who measure their chile heat according to the inconsistent but popular Scoville scale, the red savina comes in at an impressive 400,000 Scoville units. Red habaneros from Barbados are 325,000 units, and California orange habaneros are a relatively wimpy 240,000 units.

The problem: Chances of finding fresh savinas are pretty slim.

Of course you can always grow your own. Joe Arditi--"Pepper Joe" to his friends--grows 50 varieties of peppers in the quarter-acre plot behind his house in Norristown, Pa. And he fills mail-order requests for hot pepper seeds.

"Everybody that comes here expects to see a field of peppers," says Arditi, 75. "Not so. I was born in Italy, where they use every inch of ground. You should see the way I plant things. People come from as far as three hours away just to see my garden. They even bring camcorders." Arditi enjoys the attention: "People come up to me and say, 'You're Pepper Joe. I saw you on TV.' "

Arditi is a retired restaurateur. "I opened the first pizzeria in Norristown in 1947," he says, "when [pizzas] were still called tomato pies." He broke into the hot pepper seed business five years ago.

"I can't believe it," Arditi say. "All I did was start something as a hobby, and now I'm getting famous. I only wish I could make more money. My son figured it out and says I make about 54 cents an hour."

Arditi's catalogue is filled with rare pepper seeds, including red savinas, chunky Bolivian rainbows, gold fatallis, black-seeded rocotos, pueblos, African devils and Jellybean peppers. Packets of seeds run $3 to $4. The catalogue also contains gardening tips and recipes.

"It's nice when people order my seeds," says Arditi, "but it's even nicer when they ask for my advice."

Because of his age, loyal customers worry that Arditi might be thinking about retiring. Arditi says no way: "I may be 75 years, but I look about 59, maybe 60. I'm six feet tall and 190 pounds. I have all my hair and I have all my teeth and I think my voice is all right. Now, ain't that just great?"

* Arditi doesn't take phone orders, but a free mail-order catalogue is available. Send a stamped, self-addressed, business-size envelope to Pepper Joe Inc., 1650 Pembrooke Road, Norristown, Pa . 19403.

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