Sfincione is a thick Sicilian pizza, or more precisely a focaccia,
topped with tomatoes, onions, a few anchovies and perhaps grated casciocavallo cheese, seasoned with a dash of oregano. Outside
Italy, the term "Sicilian pizza" is used to describe all kinds
of things, but until the 1860s sfincione (loosely translated "thick
sponge") was the kind of "pizza" usually consumed in Sicily,
especially in the western part of the island.
With a spongy crust up to two centimetres (an inch) thick, sfincione
is more like bread than pizza --which in Italy usually has a thin crust.
The Sicilian term "sfincia" alludes to sponges and the spongy,
meaning that sfincione shares the same origin as sfinci. Culinary writers
like to wax poetic about its "ancient" or medieval origins. In
fact, sfincione has been made only since the seventeenth century. The most
important ingredient, the tomato, is South American in origin. It has been
cultivated in Sicily only since the sixteenth century. The story of sfincione
having been invented by some cloistered nuns may have merit, but nobody
knows for certain.
The tomatoes are essential, but the real flavour of sfincione comes from
the onions, sautéed in olive oil before baking.
Sfincione (Sicilian sfinciune) is made or sold by a sfinciunaro. Street vendors (especially at Palermo's open-air markets) sell sfincione,
but some of the best is made by bakeries like Spinnato (in Palermo's via
Principe di Belmonte). By tradition, sfincione is served on Christmas Eve,
New Year's Eve and Good Friday. In warmer months it is served at room temperature.
"Sfincione" doesn't refer to just any thick pizza. The genuine
article is very simple: dough, tomatoes (in a simple sauce seasoned with
salt, pepper and a touch of sugar) and onions. The cheese and anchovies
are optional. Only virgin olive oil should be used in the dough and topping.
Unlike its circular cousin (pizza) sfincione is baked in a square tray and
cut into square or rectangular pieces.
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.