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by Francesca Lombardo

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Sfincione.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: Palermo native Francesca Lombardo is Best of Sicily's resident wine expert. She has written a book about Sicilian street food.

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