I asked Nick Nicolosi, Pizzacentric's Sicilian food critic, to define sfincione. In New York, it's pizza with a spongy soft crust topped with sautéed minced onions, fried breadcrumbs, grated cheese (Pecorino Romano, not mozzarella), tomato sauce, and (usually) anchovy. Aware that American pizza can differ from its Italian counterparts, I wanted to know if our sfincione is actually Sicilian.
(His answer — "Sicilian? No! I mean not from Catania. Maybe from Palermo." — touches upon the extreme localism of Italian food origins. Even within Sicily, a volcanic island two miles from the toe of the boot, foods vary town to town.)
"In Catania," he said, "it's a kind of 'dick' with rice and honey. Sfincione means something soft." He sent me a link showing Catanian sfincione. Looks good, right? But it's not pizza.
"In Palermo," he added, "it's a soft pizza with the ingredients that you mentioned." He embedded a YouTube video in which a Palermo grandma (she calls herself "lanonnadiinternet") shows off her homemade sfincione:
"Are Catania and Palermo rival towns?" I asked Nick.
"Sure. Are you kidding me?" he wrote back.
The grandma of the video uses caciocavallo on her sfincione. So does Veloce, a Sicilian pizzeria in the East Village (no slices). Most NYC pizzerias that serve this style (there aren't many) use Pecorino Romano and often leave off the anchovies to appease American taste buds.
But it's sfincione's soft and spongy crust that differs from that of other pizzas around town. During a recent expedition to 15 downtown pizzerias, one diner at Famous Ben's of Soho remarked that his slice of "Onion Sauce and Bread Crumbs" (the menu lists it under the heading "Palermo") was lighter than he thought it would be — and not doughy at all.
Papa Mike's in Bensonhurst makes a formidable sfincione without anchovies. While there, I met three high school girls out celebrating their basketball victory in a church tournament. They'd eaten at Papa Mike's many times but had never tried the sfincione, so I bought them a slice. They said they liked it, but upon finishing quickly returned to dipping sticks of fried mozzarella into marinara sauce.
Request to readers: tell me your favorite spots for Palermo style sfincione (can be NYC or beyond) and I'll create/share a map.