20th Avenue Crowd Pleaser
It was a rainy Sunday and I couldn't stop thinking about sfincione.
Internet search results listed a ravioli store and a pizza shop in Bensonhurst. I first called A&L — the pizza shop.
"Whole pies only, we make them from scratch, it'll take about 40 minutes." said the guy on the phone.
So I tried the ravioli store. Melanie C.'s Yelp review of Papa Pasquale Ravioli Pasta Company's sfincione called it "wonderful" — but added that it's available on Saturdays only. I called and found out it's also served on Sundays — but they were about to close for the day.
"Any recommendations?" I asked. "Yes, there's a pizzeria at 20th Avenue and 75th Street across the street from St. Dominic's Church. Try that."
Papa Mike's has been in business since 1971. In 2008 the owner (Mike) moved it from the original spot next door and installed a fast-cooking, flame-throwing "Wood Stone" oven — the type used in duplicate to bake pizzas and roast meats at Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria in Soho.
Nestled amongst many attractive pies (including a creamy Grandma and a Neapolitan topped with arugula) was the sfincione, of which five squares remained.
Mike's omits the anchovies — "not everyone likes them," he says — but will make a whole pie the traditional way (see Pizzacentric sfincione entry for details) if requested.
Sans anchovies, this ultra-soft pan pie imparts a tingly crunch from the fried breadcrumbs and a soft and spongy chew from its pillowy crust. The tomato and onions contribute savory notes that have me wondering why it isn't on more menus.
Old-timers from nearby private Italian social clubs sometimes order sfincione pies whole — anchovies included. When I asked Mike if he could put me in touch with some of them, he said no.
Though most places that offer sfincione are Sicilian-owned, Mike is from Naples. He also makes focaccia pizzas, Chicago-style deep dish pies, and Hawaiian style; he sells Buffalo wings, burgers and fries, and plenty of pasta choices. He told me point blank: "I'm here to please."
As I ate my square of sfincione I watched him take a fresh, bubbling grandma pie out of the oven: I had to try it. It had more topside creaminess — no skimping on the fior di latte (fresh cow's milk mozzarella) — than any grandma I've had prior. Because it's finished directly on the oven floor, I expected the bottom to be crispier than standard grandma pies — but it wasn't. I asked Mike about this. He said that because it was a slice pie and he expected to reheat it in slices, he initially undercooks it by about a minute.
Judging from the diverse flow of customers entering Papa Mike's throughout my late afternoon visit, it seems that Mike's devotion to keeping everyone happy has paid off. One man ate a bowl of pasta, another had chicken parmesan, and three high school girls had plain slices and mozzarella sticks. I asked Mike why he was there on a Sunday — and if he's always there. He told me that he works Sundays and all days because that's what his father taught him to do. This is the way, he told me, to ensure things are done right — and to stay connected with his customers.
Map Papa Mike's (call ahead for days/hours).