My Zia (aunt Pina) had creamy, flawless skin, silver white hair, and bright blue eyes. She looked nothing like what someone from Sicily "looks" like. That's because Sicilians don't look like anything. They are 2000 year mix of so many different genes from so many different places. There is a saying that comes out of the mouths of elder's in Sicily when a new baby is born: what carnagione do they have? Or. What is their skin tone? Not to pass any kind of judgement -- but because they are truly fascinated by their own genetics - their own spectrum of who they are. In the States - Aunt Jay was always seen as "so beautiful" "the pretty one" - and of course she was to me but not for the same reason's I think other's talked about her as. I always wondered if she was this light skinned, light eyed, light haired woman in a sea of darker folk - and that became the standard for beauty in the New World.
Pina aka Josephine aka Jay (she went by every one of those names) was pretty the much my family's best baker/pizza maker. Hand's down. Best pastry. Best crusts. Best Creams. Best deep fried sweet treats. Nobody knows how she did it they way she did it - but god bless her - she will go down in history as the best, and generously so. She's 100 years old now (somewhere around there) - still alive. I wish I could be back in NY at this very moment and make her some Sfincione and bring it to her at the assisted living home she resides in. It really wasn't Christmastime until she arrived with trays, and I mean trays, of Sfincione aka - Sicilian pizza. I wish I could somehow let her know that her "recipe" lives on in and through me - although I can never replicate her art. (quotes around recipe because there are no written recipes, just passed on verbally).
Of course, I didn't really love this "pizza" for a few years there when I was a teen and just wanted "real pizza" (probably from Pizza Hut -- which just makes me sad looking back at how hard I rebelled against all the food I was cooked, baked and fed as a kid). Sfincione pizza wasn't thin and full of cheese or toppings- it barely had cheese and no toppings but a sauce made from fresh tomato sauce mixed with anchovy, onion, bread crumbs + seasoning.
When I went to Sicily almost two years ago, my sweet friend Russ Lombaro, took me all around Palermo to the best street food vendors. "You want the caponata?"
And he took me to an old guy with a folding table and a pot full of eggplant stew. It was served to my in a single use plastic bowl and fork in exchange for 75 cents.
"You want the Sfincione?"
"OH SI SI!"
And he took me to a guy who had a little tiny stand against an old stone building in an alley just off the famous street food market.
For less than 1 Euro I got the most glorious piece of Sfincione - wrapped in butcher paper. It was a massive sized piece. Perhaps the size of my entire face. I hadn't had it like that since Zia Pina made, tray after tray.
"Hard to find the best Sfincione here in Palermo - not like the old days," Russ explained. "But this man, he makes the best still".
The bottom layer of the crust is buttery, crisp, the middle layer must be light and airy, bouncy, (the term "sfince" means spongey and this is where the name comes from) the top layer must be saturated with it's unique "sauce" which is really more like a paste; fishy, salty, gooey, sweet, onion-y. All these layers shouldn't be abrupt in their transitions. They just ombre against each other so it becomes one experience - multi-textured and flavored.
I prepare this pizza, and all these traditional foods, and share them here with you because they bring into a sensory experience, a remembrance of what the hands before us lovingly created, re-making memory, or at least trying to. And doing so out of pure joy and because this food, if made with attention to detail and magic -- is just fucking out of this world. And without a little story, without a little relationship — it’s just something to eat. With the story and connection — it becomes something about life, about who we are and who we have been and who we are remembering we can be.
So, whether you have any Sicilian in your blood, or not - here is a recipe for this pizza that truly unique to this region - the back streets of the beautiful, gritty, food centered Palermo, Sicilia.
(I am not giving you Pina's recipe. There are some things that just stay on lock down, folks - it's like a familial magic spell that cannot be written - and only passed on to those in the kitchen with you. So come to my kitchen and you can get all the secrets. But for now, I'm sharing a very similar recipe by Fabrizia Lanza, who runs Case Vecchie - a cooking school in rural Sicily. This recipe was recently published in the NYTimes - but she also has a fantastic book - Coming Home To Sicily - which explores the seasonal flavors of the island).
SFINCIONE: a palermitan pizza.
FOR THE DOUGH:
1 tablespoon dry active yeast¼ cup fine semolina flour2 cups flour or all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting1 teaspoon kosher salt2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
FOR THE TOPPING:
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing pan and drizzling1 small onion, thinly sliced1 ½ cups plain tomato sauce (look for passata, which is not a thick purée)Salt and pepperPinch of red-pepper flakes, or to taste1 cup fine dry bread crumbs1 cup grams grated pecorino or other sheep’s cheese (3 ounces)8 anchovy fillets, cut into 1-inch piecesDried oregano, preferably Sicilian
Make the dough: In a mixing bowl or bowl of a stand mixer, put 1 cup lukewarm water and yeast. Add semolina and stir to make a thin paste. Let sit at room temperature for 5 minutes, until bubbly.Add flour, salt and olive oil, and mix until dough becomes a rough mass. Knead dough until smooth, about 5 minutes. Dust with flour as needed, but don’t add much: This is meant to be a soft dough. Put kneaded dough in a resealable plastic bag or a bowl covered with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, preferably longer, up to 24 hours.Make the sauce: Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup water, and raise heat to high. Simmer briskly until all the water has evaporated and onions are soft. Add tomato purée and bring to a simmer, then turn off heat. Season with salt and pepper, and add red pepper to taste. Allow mixture to cool, then stir in bread crumbs, grated cheese and anchovies. Let mixture rest for 5 minutes, then taste and adjust seasoning.Heat oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle olive oil to coat the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch rimmed baking sheet. Remove dough from refrigerator and press down to deflate. Using a rolling pin, flatten dough to a small rectangle.Transfer dough to oiled baking sheet, and, using the palms of your hands, stretch dough to the edges. If dough is rebellious and resists, let it rest for a few minutes, then stretch again. (It may take 2 or 3 attempts.) Cover dough loosely with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel, and set in a warm place to rise. After 30 minutes or so, dough should have doubled in thickness.Spoon the topping evenly over the dough, then use a spatula or the back of the spoon to spread the topping smoothly over entire surface, leaving a half-inch border. Drizzle surface with 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil.Bake for 30 to 35 minutes on the oven’s middle shelf, until nicely browned. Check the underside to make sure it is crisp, and bake for a few more minutes if necessary. (Tent top with foil if top has browned too quickly.)Remove from pan to a cutting board. Sprinkle with a little salt and a large pinch of oregano. Cut into 8 square slices. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Let me know if you make it!