The etymology of sfincione isn't completely clear, but the most likely answer is that if comes from the word for sponge, a reference to its tall, airy texture. The bottom is crisp with olive oil while the sauce and cheese layer are salty and deeply savory with dry grated caviocallo (a Sicilian sheep's milk cheese) and anchovies with plenty of caramelized onions. Rather than straight melted cheese on the top, it's got a mixture of bread crumbs and more caviocavallo. Carbs on carbs is a great way to start the New Year!
I use a variation of my No-Knead No-Roll Sicilian Pizza Dough, which is made using the No Knead Bread method. Flour, yeast, water, salt, and a bit of oil are mixed together and allowed to ferment for a couple of days. The dough is wet enough that after dumping it into an oiled sheet tray, it'll basically stretch itself out as it rises, requiring only a few minor stretches to get it to the edges.
Onions are a key ingredient in the sauce for sfincione, and they must be deeply caramelized. Caramelization breaks down complex carbohydrates in the onions into shorter, sweeter simple sugars. These sugars subsequently break down even further, recombining into hundreds of flavorful compounds that add complexity to the aroma. A slow sautée in extra-virgin olive oil is key for effecting this transformation.
Anchovies contain massive amounts of glutamates, the chemical compounds responsible for the flavor of umami—savoriness. They're also a rich source of inosinates, another compound which works in conjunction with glutamates to amplify their effect. Many folks are afraid of the fishy taste of anchovies, but incorporated into a sauce like this with plenty of other flavorful ingredients, you won't notice the fishiness at all in the finished dish, just an intense, salty savory quality.
Oregano and Red Pepper
The only other seasonings for the sauce are oregano and red pepper. While most herbs are better fresh, succulent herbs like oregano, marjoram, and rosemary which come from dry, hot environments are particularly good at maintaining their aroma even when dried. Fresh oregano is nice, but dried works perfectly well for this application. The anchovies, oregano, and red pepper gets added to the cooking onions for the last 30 seconds—just enough time to release their aroma before adding...
It's better to use whole tomatoes packed in juice rather than crushed or diced tomatoes, which are far more inconsistent and contain more calcium chloride—a firming agent used to prevent tomatoes from becoming mushy. Crush the tomatoes by squeezing them between your fingers or passing them through a food mill. After that, a long, slow simmer along with the other ingredients will intensify their flavor.
Sicilian Ragusano cheese is a form of caciocavallo, a hand-stretched Southern Italian cheese noted for its tear-drop shape. The Sicilian version is made with sheep's milk and has a very distinct tang. It can range from moist and creamy when fresh to very hard and sharp when aged. Go to a good Italian deli and ask for caciocavallo that has been matured and is meant for grating. If you can't find caciocavallo, a good Pecorino Romano, sharp aged Provolone, or even Parmigiano-Reggiano will do.
The Bread Crumbs
Instead of straight up cheese, sfincione is topped with a mixture of fine bread crumbs, olive oil, and grated cheese. I grind them all together in the food processor to coat them evenly in the oil and make sure the dried bread is reduced to a fine powder.
After the dough is risen and stretched into the pan, it gets coated with a thick layer of sauce, a thin layer of cheese, and plenty of the seasoned bread crumbs.
Pretty much every step of the assembly involves a ton of olive oil—it's the primary flavor of the dish. Use your best.
You don't need any special hacks or Neapolitan-esque raging infernos to bake this pie. A regular oven at 450°F with a baking stone set directly on the bottom will do. Preheating the stone on the very bottom of the oven ensures that the bottom of the crust gets nice and crispy, pretty much deep frying in the layer of olive oil at the bottom of the pan. It results in something like...
Crisp, crunchy, and saturated with olive oil, this is the kind of bottom crust you're looking for.
Can you see all those microscopic bubbles, nooks, and crannies? That's courtesy of our slow ferment. Thanks!
Tall and spongy, but never dense or doughy, sfincione should have several distinct textural and flavor elements: the olive oil-saturated crunch of the bottom crust; the moist, tender spongy middle layer; the savory, sweet and acidic sauce with plenty of onion and anchovy; and the light, crumbly crunch of the bread crumbs on top.