Why It Works
- A long, slow fermentation allows the dough to develop complex flavors and gives it a chewy texture.
- Using a scale to measure out ingredients for the pizza dough ensures consistent results.
- Homemade bread crumbs give the crunchy topping a satisfying texture.
The etymology of sfincione isn't completely clear, but the most likely answer is that it comes from the word for sponge, a reference to its tall, airy texture. The bottom is crisp with olive oil while the sauce and cheese layer are salty and deeply savory with dry grated caciocavallo (a Sicilian sheep's milk cheese) and anchovies with plenty of caramelized onions. Rather than straight melted cheese on the top, it's got a mixture of bread crumbs and more caciocavallo. 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 (and what I know of Sicilians), it's natural that anchovies play a large role in the flavor of Sicilian pizza, lending their characteristic savory, salty brininess. (Worth noting: None of the New York pizzerias serving versions of sfincione—Ben's and Pizza Cotta Bene, for example—employ anchovies in the sauce.)
Anchovies contain massive amounts of glutamates, the chemical compounds responsible for the flavor of umami, or savoriness. They're also a rich source of inosinates, another compound which works in conjunction with glutamates to amplify their effect. Many folks are afraid of the fishy taste of anchovies, but incorporated into a sauce like this with plenty of other flavorful ingredients, you won't notice the fishiness at all in the finished pizza, just an intense, salty-savory quality.
The only other seasonings for the sauce are oregano and red pepper. While most herbs are better fresh, succulent herbs like oregano, marjoram, and rosemary which come from dry, hot environments are particularly good at maintaining their aroma even when dried. Fresh oregano is nice, but dried works perfectly well for this application. The anchovies, oregano, and red pepper get added to the cooking onions for the last 30 seconds—just enough time to release their aroma before adding the tomatoes. It's better to use whole tomatoes packed in juice rather than crushed or diced tomatoes, which are far more inconsistent and contain more calcium chloride—a firming agent used to prevent tomatoes from becoming mushy. Crush the tomatoes by squeezing them between your fingers or passing them through a food mill. After that, a long, slow simmer along with the other ingredients will intensify their flavor.
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. Caciocavallo can range from moist and creamy when fresh to very hard and sharp when aged. Go to a good Italian deli and ask for caciocavallo that has been matured and is meant for grating. Here, I'm using the traditional choice: Sicilian Ragusano, a caciocavallo made with sheep's milk that has a very distinct tang. If you can't find aged caciocavallo, a good Pecorino Romano, sharp aged Provolone, or even Parmigiano-Reggiano will do.
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.
Crisp, crunchy, and saturated with olive oil, this is the kind of bottom crust you're looking for.
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."
For the Dough:
500g (about 3 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
10g (about 2 teaspoons) kosher salt
5g (about 1 teaspoon) instant or RapidRise yeast
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
347g (12.25 ounces; 1.5 cups) water (see notes)
For the Breadcrumbs:
1 loaf Italian-style bread, cut into 1/2-inch slices (see notes)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces caciocavallo cheese (see notes), grated on the large holes of a box grater
For the Sauce:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large onions, finely diced (about 2 1/2 cups total)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
8 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, crushed by hand or in a food mill
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
4 ounces caciocavallo cheese, grated on the large holes of a box grater
To Make the Dough: Add flour, salt, and yeast to a large bowl and whisk to combine. Add olive oil and water and stir with a wooden spoon until no dry flour remains. Dough will be quite wet. Do not add more flour. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator at least 12 hours and up to 3 days. While dough ferments, make the breadcrumbs and sauce (both can be made ahead).
To Make the Breadcrumbs: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 300°F (150°C). Spread bread slices on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until completely dry, about 30 minutes. Break up bread into rough pieces with your hands then transfer to a food processor. Add olive oil and cheese and process into a fine powder. Set aside until ready to use. Breadcrumbs can be stored in a sealed container at room temperature for up to 3 days.
To Make the Sauce: Heat olive oil and onions in a large straight-sided sautée pan over medium-high heat until sizzling. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until onions are deep golden brown, about 20 minutes total.
Add oregano, red pepper flakes, and anchovies and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer then reduce to lowest possible heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until deep red, rich, and thick, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and set aside. Sauce can be stored in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 1 week.
When ready to assemble, place a baking stone directly on the bottom of your oven and preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C). Pour half of oil in the bottom of a rimmed aluminum baking sheet. Carefully remove dough from bowl and form it into a ball. Pour remaining oil over the top and coat with your hands. Let rise at room temperature for 2 hours. Dough should spread to mostly fill the pan. Gently stretch and shape it to fill out to the edges. Let rise another 30 minutes.
Carefully spread a generous layer of sauce to within 1/4-inch of the edges of the dough, taking care not to deflate the dough excessively (You may not need all the sauce). The sauce will spread better if it's allowed to come to room temperature first. Add a layer of grated cheese. Top the entire top surface with the cheesy bread crumbs (you may not need all the crumbs). Drizzle with more olive oil. Bake directly on the stone until top is golden brown and bottom is crisp and bubbly when you peek with a metal spatula, about 25 minutes total, rotating once halfway through cooking.
Remove from the pan using a thin metal spatula and transfer to a cutting board. Serve immediately.
The 12.25 ounces of water (347g) is by weight, not volume. For best results, use a scale.
Store-bought bread crumbs will work, but for best results, use homemade.
Caciocavallo is a sheep's milk cheese from Sicily. When purchasing, ask for aged caciocavallo meant for grating. If unavailable, replace with Pecorino-Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 27g||34%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||18%|
|Total Carbohydrate 80g||29%|
|Dietary Fiber 5g||20%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 17mg||87%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|