Sfincione is a dish that many Palermitani (people of Palermo) hold dear. The city of Palermo possesses ancient roots, dating back to the Phoenician establishment over 2700 years ago. Long before anything like “Sicily” or “Italy” existed, the port city was known as Ziz (flower), by its initial settlers, and in Carthage amongst the Punic-speaking peoples there. Over the ensuing millennia the city’s streets saw the feet of Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Swabians, and eventually Italians. All these peoples brought with them their unique perspectives, cultures and ideas, and left their mark on Palermo. As a result the city, like all of Sicily, reflects these influences through the most delicious medium: food.

 

Sfincioni

Among the Palermitani street food plays an important role in daily life. Bread in particular is king in the streets of Palermo, with dishes such as Pani ca Meusa (bread rolls with sliced pork spleen), panelle (chickpea batter fritters served on a roll) and the focus of this article: sfincione.

Sfincione is thought of as the precursor to New York City’s very own “Sicilian Pizza.” The structure of both dishes is rather similar: flatbread baked in a rectangular pan, topped with a sauce (usually tomato based) and garnished with cheese, though the devil is in the details. The Sicilian slice one might find in any pizzeria across America (especially one owned by Sicilian Americans) features a sauce akin to marinara, mozzarella made from American cows and typically features some type of cured meat. All this lends itself to the concept of pizza as we know it, though mozzarella and marinara have nothing to do with sfincione. The Palermo specialty relies on a thick, robust sauce of caramelized onions, dried chili, oregano, anchovies and tomatoes and it is garnished with caciocavallo and breadcrumbs, not mozzarella and pepperoni.

The comparison of caciocavllo (literally “horse cheese”) and mozzarella is stark to say the least. The former is the name for a family of hard, stretch-curd cheeses native to Sicily and greater Southern Italy. Typically the flavor is sharp and has a mild nuttiness, though this depends largely on the origin of the milk used. Caciocavallo can be made from sheep’s milk or cow’s milk, and is highly regional as a result. The one milk that it is never made from is horse milk, the name caciocavallo is thought to come from the drying method, in which two cheese forms are places “a cavallo,” or straddling a stick like one would a horse. In Sicily, the cheese is predominantly made from cows milk (as in the Caciocavallo Palermitano). Mozzarella by comparison is the mild, luxurious and silky cheese traditionally made from Italian buffalo milk. In the USA, cow’s milk mozzarella came to prominence due to the extensive dairy farming that took place in the 19th century, the same time that many Italian immigrants settled along the Eastern Seaboard. The influence of the Italian immigrants led to the production of a myriad Italian style cheeses from northern and southern Italy, like mozzarella (Southern) and provolone (Northern).

The cheese is, however, a compliment. It is the touch that gilds the humble dish of bread and sauce. And while many would (myself among them) contend it is an absolute necessity, sfincione’s power truly lies in the communion of well-made bread and fiery sauce. The sauce reflects the gloriously peasant nature of the dish by bringing together onions, garlic, oregano, tomatoes, anchovies and chilies into something greater than the sum of it’s parts. All of these common ingredients give insight into the palate of the Palermitani, with heat, deep caramelized sweetness, rich umami and subtle acidity melding into a rich mélange atop crisp yet pillowy bread. The Sicilian palate reflects, like so many palates, the best use of what is available. The anchovies are a common sight throughout the Mediterranean sphere due to their abundance and relative inexpensive nature. Tomatoes are highly prized in Sicily with those grown around Ragusa and Syracuse reaching protected trade status in the European Union (specifically protected geographic indication). Onions, herbs, garlic and olive oil all function as a basis for many dishes in Sicilian cooking, so it’s no surprise to see them featured heavily in this dish.

Sfincione gives an interesting insight into the simple, hearty and delicious food that has come to define Sicilian and Italian food as a whole. The dish is defined by its rustic and affordable character and showcases key elements of the Mediterranean diet. Without this humble dish the American pizza culture would be without an integral component, and this connection illustrates how cuisine can grow and adapt to new shores and new palates.

Ingredients:

Dough:

  • 4 cups of all purpose flour (or bread flour)
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoons commercial baking yeast
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil (ideally Sicilian olive oil)
  • 1 1/2 cups water

Sauce:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 medium yellow onions, halved and sliced against the grain
  • 1 28 ounce can San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 8 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
  • Kosher salt (to taste)

Bread crumbs:

  • 1/2 loaf rustic bread (like Levain), cut into 1/2 in. thick slices, or 1/2 loaf of day old rustic bread, broken up into small bite sized pieces
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 ounces Paciocavallo, or Pecorino Romano, or a combination of the two, grated

To Finish:

  • 5 ounces Caciocavallo, or Pecorino Romano, or a combination of the two, grated

Preparation:

For the Dough:

  1. Combine flour, salt and yeast in a large, nonreactive bowl and whisk to combine.
  2. Add olive oil and water to the dry ingredients and combine (by hand or with a spoon) until no dry flour remains. The dough should be quite wet, and whatever you do, do not add more flour.
  3. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 12 hours to 3 days.

NOTE: Try and make the measurements for the dough exact. The moisture content is key in this recipe. Also best results come from longer fermentation times, so my recommendation is to allow the dough to ferment for three days.

For the Breadcrumbs:
If using day old bread skip to step 3.

  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and ensure one of the racks is placed in the center of the oven.
  2. Place the slices of bread on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until dried and hard.
  3. Break up the slices and place into food processor with olive oil and caciocavallo.
  4. Pulse the ingredients until the bread is broken up into small crumbs and cheese and oil have bound to the bread.

For the Sauce:

    1. Heat the olive oil in a wide sautee pan, or skillet, over medium heat until shimmering.
    2. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions begin to soften and brown.
    3. Once onions are a deep golden brown, add garlic, anchovies, oregano, marjoram and chili flakes and cook until fragrant, approximately 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes to the mixture, stir to combine and bring to a simmer.
  1. Once simmering, reduce heat to the lowest possible setting and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The mixture should be deep red and thickened.
  2. Season with salt and remove from the heat. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator for a week.

Assembly:

  1. Pour 1/8 of a cup of olive oil directly onto a rimmed baking sheet (half sheet pan). Carefully remove the dough from the bowl and place onto the baking sheet. Gently form it into a ball, do not overwork the dough, and pour the remaining 1/8 cup of oil over the dough.
  2. Let the dough rise for 2 hours at room temperature (in a cool oven is a good place to do this). In this time period the dough will relax and spread out in the pan.
  3. After two hours have passed, gently stretch the dough to fit the entire pan and allow to rest for an additional 30 minutes.
  4. After dough has rested, heat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and place a baking stone on the bottom of the oven. If you don’t have a baking stone, place a rack onto the lowest possible level.
  5. Spread a layer of sauce onto the dough, stopping 1/4 inch away from the edge. Note that the sauce spreads best at room temperature, and take care not to put too much sauce as it can deflate the dough.
  6. Add a generous layer of grated cheese onto the sauce. Finish the entire surface of the dough with the breadcrumbs and drizzle oil over the top.
  7. Place the pan directly onto the baking stone (or the oven rack) and bake until the top layer is golden brown and the bottom is crisp and bubbly, about 25-30 minutes.
  8. Remove the finished Sfincione from the pan using a metal spatula and transfer to a large cutting board. Cut into even sized squares and serve immediately.

Recipe and photo by Liam Fox