There is an Italian specialty store called Altomonte's close to where we live, in a distant suburb of Philadelphia, that just opened a new 100,000 square foot store. We've been looking forward to their opening for six months or more. Their previous, smaller shop was our go-to shop for Italian imported cheese and cold cut delicacies like sausages, speck and guanciali. They even have their own version of Altamura bread. I also love their imported pastas, many from Puglia where my Dad was born.... although they are a bit expensive. But one offering I always thought was a bit strange... Tomato Pie. I just didn't get it.
I'm not talking about the type of Tomato Pie made in the southern United States--the one shaped like an apple pie. This is more like a large Sicilian pizza, except without any cheese on top. But wait--it's not really pizza. At least not in my book. Being a north Jersey native, I never saw such an odd "pizza".
At a quick glance, it reminds me of a Sicilian pizza in Manhattan--1" thick crust and rectangular, cut into square pieces when served. But that's where the similarity ends. Sicilian pizza may be thick, but it's hot and steamy inside. Tomato Pie is normally served room temperature and is anything but steamy, and the slices are much larger. The thick crust is more like a Focaccia--less crusty and more bread-like than pizza. To my taste, this is a heavy bread dough. The proportion of bread to topping is way off--too much bread, not enough topping and texture.
The way Tomato Pies are topped off is very different, indeed. While a NY Sicilian pizza has lots of sauce with cheese on top (and a wide variety of optional toppings), a Tomato Pie is usually spartan--topped with a simple tasting tomato sauce. The crust is usually pre-baked first before adding the sauce (to ensure the bready crust stays thick). There are variations that include cheese, but the cheese is traditionally put on first with the sauce on top--similar to a Chicago style deep dish pizza, or in the form of grated parmesan sprinkled over the top.
Getting back to Altomonte's for a moment... I was told months ago in their old shop that the new place would have tables and chairs and food that you could eat-in--including a wood fired pizza oven. I was really looking forward to stopping in for lunch once in a while, having a real Italian style thin crust, smokey wood baked pizza. The tables are there, but when visiting the new Altomonte's this weekend we were all disappointed to see a big sign over the pizza ovens saying "Tomato Pie", not "Pizza". In fact, they are only making Tomato Pies as far as we could tell. Not one pizza in sight. In fact, only steel commercial pizza ovens. No wood fired oven. What a let-down for this pizza-loving Voyager.
And there they were... big, thick, bready, room-temperature sheets of bland Tomato Pie. Some were cut into squares for individual portions with a couple of slabs of mozzarella and basil on top-- a poor attempt to pass for a slice of pizza.
Oh well, my dreams were dashed. I hoped for a taste of Italy within half an hour of home. What I got was a taste of Philadelphia. (To be honest, I rate Philly's Italian neighborhoods very low when compared to NY's Little Italy or Arthur Avenue for authenticity). You see, the Tomato Pie is a product with little real Italian heritage. It was invented by Italian-American immigrants in Philly, some claim that it represents Sicilian pizza--or Sfincione Palermitano, a type of thick focaccia. You might also see it called “gravy pie” (a reference to "Sunday Gravy"), "church pie", "square pizza", "red pizza", "granny pizza", "red pie", or simply "sheet pizza".
Sfincione in Sicily is a different thing, however--different from both pizza and Tomato Pie. The dough for Sfincione is very different to start with... it is really a brioche made with fat and eggs where pizza and focaccia are made with neither. Sfincione can have generous toppings, where a Tomato Pie uses toppings sparingly. There can be cherry tomatoes or sliced tomatoes, sweet or hot chili peppers, lots of cheese (often loads of caciocavallo) and onions or anchovies. A traditional finish to a Sfincione is to top it off with oregano flavored bread crumbs for a great crunch on top.
Sadly, Tomato Pie typically has just sauce and maybe a sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese. Of course, if you go into Philadephia's Italian neighborhoods, there will be variations... some with more topping choices, some using more of a focaccia or pizza dough rather than a brioche, some thinner and some thicker. Some even serve it hot. But in most cases, it's a Philly thing--not like Sfincione at all.
Here's a very authentic recipe I found for Sfincione:
You need a large half sheet pan, or a large circular rimmed pan for this recipe.
For the dough
2-3 cups bread flour
2 tablespoons active yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 - 1/4 cup water at 115F
1 - 1/2 tablespoons lard (salted butter as substitute)
1 egg, beaten
For the sauce
1 large Vidalia or similar sweet onion, cut into thin half moons
28 ounce can crushed tomatoes (I recommend Tuttorosso brand)
small jar, imported anchovies in oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 - 1/2 cups grated (with 1/4 holes) caciocavallo cheese (substitute sharp provolone)
1 - 1/2 cups bread crumbs
2 tablespoons Oregano (for mixing with bread crumbs)
Extra virgin olive oil
Making the Dough
Prepare the sauce
Putting the Sfincione together
After the dough has finished its rise in the pan, take the remaining anchovies and spread them scattered across the the dough. Scatter the grated caciocavallo across the dough.
Cover the entire pan with about half of the onion/tomato sauce--you can be the judge of how saucy you want it. Mix the oregano with the bread crumbs, then sprinkle all over the top of your Sfincione. Place in your preheated oven at 400° F on the middle rack and bake for 20 minutes, or until the bottom side of your crust is golden brown. You can then turn your oven to grill for 2-3 minutes (keep an eye on it to prevent burning!) to crisp the top.
Let cool a few minutes before slicing into squares for serving.
Try a Nero d'Avola Sicilian wine with your Sfincione... In my opinion, a lot tastier and authentic than a Philadelphia Tomato Pie.
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1/12/2020 05:25:30 pm
My entire Sicilian family would gather every New Years Eve to help my grandparents make about 30 sfinciune. Everyone in the neighborhood got a few pieces, a half or whole pie, according to how my grandfather felt about them.
1/26/2021 10:42:01 pm
Loved the article! Used to get this at the circus every year when I was a kid. Brought back fond memories of spending time with my grandfather.
2/6/2021 08:28:18 pm
I am an Italian American who was born and raised in Philly. Every Sunday after church we would stop and get a Tomato Pie from Neri’s Italian Bakery. Altomonte’s is okay. But if you want some good tasting tomato pie, there are quite a few in philly, burbs and South Jersey. Casia’s philly and Jersey, Corrropolease Italian Bakery in Norristown, Carlino’s in Ardmore, Bruno’s in Haddon Township, and Antonio’s in Audubon . There are many Italian bread stores in South Philly which are very good also.
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