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After you’ve thrown back a few beers in the piazza but the end of the night is nowhere in sight, you feel a little rumble in your belly and know it’s time for a snack. Street food in Palermo is epic. There is a huge selection of fried panelle, grilled stighiole, boiled octopus or even the big bomba – the famous spleen sandwich: pane ca meusa. But the secret is not greasy sustenance at this moment, the thing you really need is bread.
In a bit of a “Midnight in Paris” type of cinematic dream, I found myself in a little slice of heaven around 2AM in the heart of centro storico Palermo. If you try to find it the next morning, there will be nothing there. Tucked away on an unlit street, the smell of onions and freshly baked bread leads you to what can really be described as a garage where two men on the night shift are baking fresh sfincione for the whole city. For over 35 years, these two guys have been making the same food every single day, and they only make one thing. On one side there is a crate of white onions that will be peeled and thinly sliced before cooking in a huge stockpot over an open flame with tomato until it becomes a soft pink color. In the main room, Piero mixes the cold tomato and onion mixture with breadcrumbs by hand in a big bucket and there is an assembly line of sheet pans getting topped with the sauce and another dusting of breadcrumbs before going into the oven. This is not your typical slice joint.
In an American pizzeria, Sicilian-style pizza is a thick square piece sometimes known as the grandma slice. Where I grew up in Pennsylvania, we had something called tomato pie which was more like a room temperature focaccia with a thick layer of concentrated tomato sauce on top. We were used to something with a 1-inch dough, totally different than Neapolitan or New York thin crust pizza and the square format was always important. Over here in Sicily, there is another version of pizza. They only slice you need to add to your to do list is Sicily’s real pizza, the sfincione.
Palermitan sfincione is a fluffy pizza baked with a light topping of tomato sauce, anchovies, sliced sweet white onions, and a healthy dose of breadcrumbs. The base falls somewhere between a bread, focaccia, and a pizza dough. Created 4 centuries ago, it was something that they baked and gave to poor people outside of churches on Christmas Eve. Using cheap and plentiful ingredients, the recipe is still pretty simple and can be found all over the city without any variations. Sfincione might look heavy but it’s actually pretty light because they are cooked for a short amount of time in very hot ovens.
Hidden away in the small garage bakery in centro storico, the sfincione these guys produce at night will be picked up by street vendors and served from their carts all around the city the next day. Although the street carts of sfincione are tricked out with little ovens to reheat the pizza, the best you will ever get it will be in the middle of the night from the bakers, or maybe from a cart in the morning for breakfast.
A slice of sfincione can run you somewhere between 50 cents to 2 euros. Make sure you ask them to reheat it in the oven, then it will be topped with a drizzle of olive oil, maybe some extra salt, and a sprinkle of Sicilian oregano. There are a few variations in the province of Palermo. In Bagheria, they have a white sfincione topped with spring onions, ricotta, caciocavallo cheese, and lots of olive oil-soaked breadcrumbs. It’s known a sciavata in Camporeale, because of the long oval shape, similar to a ciabatta bread. Sfincione carts can be found all over the city, up and down Via Maqueda, in Piazza San Domenico on Via Roma and in the Ballaro market there are some spots that always have vendors. As for sharing the location of the secret late-night sfincione bakery, maybe it was all just a dream.