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".
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
- Put the yeast in a bowl with the warm water and sugar, mix with a form and let stand to "proof" (foam up) for 5-10 minutes. Let the lard (or butter, if you're substituting) sit out to come to room temperature. Beat the egg until foamy in a small bowl and set aside.
- Meanwhile, put half the flour and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and mix to combine.
- After the yeast/water is foamy, pour into the mixer bowl into the flour and mix on low speed. As the mixture gets wet, pour in the beaten egg. After a moment or two of mixing, add your lard or butter in small pieces to the bowl with the flour. Add the remaining flour little by little. You want a sticky dough to form into a rough ball. Hold back on flour if it looks too dense and dry.
- Turn out your dough ball onto a well floured surface. Flour your hands and knead the dough for 5-8 minutes. The dough should be supple, smooth and soft when done.
- Place the dough into an oiled bowl and cover. Let rise for 1 hour. At this point, preheat your oven to 400F.
- Next, roll out the dough into an oiled sheet pan, stretching the corners out to fill the pan. Cover with a cloth and let rise another hour.
Prepare the sauce
- Slice the onion into thin half-moons and fry them in a tablespoon or so of olive oil.
- When the onions begin to wilt, add 4/5 anchovy fillets and let them melt into the onions.
- Add the crushed tomatoes and a half cup of water (I use water to rinse out the can completely, and then add this tomato water). Add a a couple of pinches of salt, a teaspoon of sugar, salt and cook until the sauce thickens... about 15-20 minutes. This recipe will make twice the amount of sauce needed for your Sfincione.
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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