Any pizza lover and observer of Sicilian New Year's traditions would have guessed by now that I'm talking of sfincione, the true Sicilian pizza made with onions, bread crumbs, caciocavallo cheese, and a ton of olive oil. It's pretty delicious any time of year, but especially appropriate for welcoming the new year, when delicious, simple, hand-held, booze-spongey foods are at their apex of popularity. Not only that, but it's pretty dead-simple to make.
What's that? Never heard of it? You always thought Sicilian pizza was just the fat, square spongy stuff you get when you're drunk enough that a regular slice just won't do.
Sfincione does bear a few resemblances to what passes as a Sicilian slice stateside. For one, it's often made in a square pan and allowed to rise before being topped, resulting in a tall, focaccia-like texture.
From here, the similarities end. Rather than a sweet, bright, fresh tomato sauce, sfincione is made with a load of onions caramelized in olive oil until sweet, robust, and complex. I've not been to Sicily, but from the research I've done, what I know of Sicilians, it's natural that anchovies play a large role in the flavor of the pizza as well, lending their characteristic savory, salty brininess. (It seems that none of the New York pizzerias serving versions of sfincione—Ben's or Pizza Cotta Bene, for example—employ anchovies in theirs).
Rather than a thick layer of melted cheese, sfincione is topped with a sparing amount of very sharp grated caciocavallo, a family of hand-stretched Southern Italian cheeses that are hung by a rope and have a characteristic tear-drop shape. The version used on sfincione is made with sheep's milk and has a sharp, salty, tangy finish.
Finally, a layer of bread crumbs tops the whole pie, giving it crunch on both the bottom and the top. As the thing bakes, the bottom crust essentially deep fries in olive oil, giving it a remarkably crunchy texture and awesome flavor. Tall and spongey but never dense or doughy, sfincione should have several distinct textural and flavor elements: the olive oil-saturated crunch of the bottom crust, the moist, tender spongy middle layer, the savory, sweet and acidic sauce with plenty of onion and anchovy, and the light, crumbly crunch of the bread crumbs on top.
Now, I know what delicious is, and the finished pie here was freaking delicious, but having never actually eaten sfincione at the source, I wasn't sure as to its authenticity. Fortunately, I had two good tasters: Scott Wiener, who's spent plenty of time eating around Sicily declared it to be "spot on." Meanwhile, Leandra Palermo—who has never been to Sicily or eaten their pizza, but, er, shares her name with Sicily's capital and thus must be an expert in everything related to it—declared the olive-oily carb-fest to be "everything that is good and right in this world."
HOW to Make S"FINCIONE" Real SICILIAN PIZZA
Extra virgin olive oil
2-1/2teaspoonsdry yeast1 envelope
Up to 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour*
Sea salt or kosher salt
11 can (28 ounces) plum tomatoes with puree, or equivalent quantity of marinara sauce
2large yellow onionsthinly sliced (4 to 5 cups)
Freshly ground black pepperto taste
8 to 10ouncesmozzarella, caciocavallo or provolone cheese, or a blendthickly shredded
8 to 10anchovy filletscut in small pieces
Dried oreganoto taste
1/2cupdried breadcrumbsmoistened with olive oil
Lightly coat bottom and sides of a large rimmed baking sheet with olive oil.
Combine yeast and 1 teaspoon sugar with 1 cup warm water in a liquid measuring cup. Let stand for a few minutes, until a beige scum forms on top of the water.
Combine 3 cups flour and 1 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Combine 1/4 cup olive oil with yeast mixture and add to flour. Using a wooden spoon, gradually mix liquid into flour.
Turn dough onto a granite countertop or other smooth surface; knead, adding up to 1/2 cup more flour if necessary, until dough is glossy and no longer sticky, about 10 minutes; shape into a ball. Clean the bowl and drizzle a little oil into it; turn the dough to coat lightly. Cover and let rise in a warm place for a couple of hours until it more or less doubles in size.
Meanwhile, prepare tomato-onion sauce: Place tomatoes with puree in a blender or food processor. Pulse to a chunky consistency.
Stir onions and 1/4 cup olive oil together in a large skillet. Over medium heat, cook until onions soften, adjusting heat as necessary so they do not brown.
Add pureed tomatoes, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and black pepper to taste (omit seasonings if using prepared marinara sauce). Reduce heat and simmer until mixture thickens, 10 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and cool.
Gently deflate dough with a fist and press it over the bottom and sides of the prepared pan. Spread mozzarella evenly over dough. Dot with anchovy pieces. Cover with tomato-onion sauce, leaving a 1-inch border. Sprinkle with oregano. Sprinkle breadcrumbs moistened olive oil on top. Let rise for 30 minutes to an hour.
Preheat oven to 425°F. Bake sfincione on a rack in lower third of oven until crust edges turn golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes. Cut into squares.
A SFINCIONE CART
SPRING STREET NYC
In Palermo, these slices are often found in focaccerias. These snack shops and restaurants have standing tables where workers can enjoy rice balls, small round sandwiches made with chickpea fritters or cow spleen, a plate of pasta dotted with eggplant or tossed with sardines and fennel, or a slice of sfincione, among other items. (Brooklyn has its own historic focaccerias, too, such as Joe’s of Avenue U, while Manhattan has the modern Pane Pasta.)
Oddly enough, a few years back in Argentina, I’d encountered a similar type of pizza at Banchero in Buenos Aires, founded in 1932, making it one of the oldest pizzerias in that city. It offered a pizza called a fugazzetta, in which a crust turned up at the edges formed a boat for heaps of sauteed onions and was garnished with eggs, tomatoes, and black olives (the onions were the star of the show in this version, as they are in Famous Ben’s Palermo).
The other Sicilian slices at Famous Ben’s are similarly meatless. There’s one tiled with sliced fresh tomatoes and heaped with fluffy sauteed onions, while another features broccoli rabe, mushrooms, and zucchini. Then there’s the tomato-sauce-and-cheese Sicilian slice, certainly one of the best examples in town. The sauce is bright red and pungent, the cheese profuse and nearly cascading over the sides, but best of all is that crust, super hard on the bottom so there’s a satisfying crunch with every bite. Few places take so much trouble with the Sicilian crust, making the rectangular slices here a joy to eat — if you can just get beyond that creepy chef outside.