Let’s talk about pizza. And why not?
My mother would make four or five pan pizzas every Christmas Eve. They were the main entree served with the traditional Sicilian Feast of the Fishes. Technically, the Sicilian Christmas Eve repast is called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but Ma limited our catch to just three: smelts, shrimps, and squids. She breaded and fried up the smelts, mixed the shrimps with rice in a red sauce, and served the squids (calamari) in a thin tomato sauce. We’d eat until it felt as though our bellies would burst.
In fact, the old generation actually ate the meal early in the morning of Christmas Day. The Sicilians back in the old country, as well as first generation immigrants who arrived on these shores, mainly from the 1880s through the outbreak of World War I, would attend midnight mass and then everybody’d dash home for the huge meal. A feast indeed. After eating, I’m told, my uncles would play cards and drink wine in the dining room after the table’d been cleared, and the women would have coffee and cake in the kitchen. The kids’d be careening around the house, pepped up by the promise of opening presents. They’d run and run and run around the place until they dropped, and then their parents would sneak off to put Santa’s gifts under their respective trees.
The main locus of this bash would be Grandma’s house. Anna Lazzara. She was a pistol. She divorced Grandpa, Vincenzo Parello, back when divorce was practically unheard of among working class families. Grandpa Vince was illiterate and therefore could never become an American citizen. I still have his Enemy Alien Registration card from World War II. The US and Italy were at war from December 1941 through the Armistice of Cassibile in September, 1943.
Grandpa was truly loyal to the United States throughout the hostilities and remained so until his death in 1966. He began drawing Social Security when he retired from a cookie factory. He’d get his monthly check, sign it with a big, shaky X, and turn it over to Ma so she could cash it at the bank. He marveled that an uneducated immigrant like himself could get a hefty regular payout from the US government.
Of course, that same US government was unaware that Grandpa during Prohibition made a rot gut wine that he and Ma delivered by streetcar to the poor, unfortunately souls who were his customers. Had he been slammed away for that enterprise, I suspect his love for this holy land might have been tempered.
One of the great regrets of my life was that I came along too late to enjoy Christmas Eve at Grandma’s house.
Anyway, Ma’s Christmas Eve pizza. It was the best pizza I’d ever tasted in my life. That is until I started making my own pizza from scratch. I have about ten different secrets for making the sauce and the dough and even for reheating the leftovers.
Between you and me, here’s how to reheat pizza, no matter if it’s homemade or comes from the pizzeria. See, simply nuking a few slices makes them soggy and that won’t do. I pull out a big skillet and, using the kitchen paintbrush, carefully coat the bottom of it with olive oil. Then I heat it up on the stove until I start smelling the oil. I put the slices in the skillet and cover with a lid, the heat at about four or five out of ten. Ten or 12 minutes later, the crust is deliciously crispy, the cheese is melted just right, and whatever ingredients you have on your pizza are warmed to perfection. Be careful not to burn or blacken your crust as you reheat, You have to keep an eye on the slices and move them around at intervals.
Pizza in Italy goes back at least to the tenth century. Latin texts of the period tell about the traditional gift of duodecem pizze (twelve pizzas) baked and given to the Bishop of Gaeta from his tenants. Pizza throughout history has been a baked, flat, leavened bread base with tomatoes on top. As the centuries rolled by people from different Italian regions, and locales around the world, began adding different ingredients until, for instance, today’s American pizza can even have pineapple on it.
Which, by the way, is a crime against humanity. Just don’t do it. If you do, keep it to yourself and don’t make me weep.
Sicilian pizza is based on something called sfincione. Go ahead, try to say it: s’feen-see-OH-nay. See? You can do it.
Sfincione dough is rolled out in a large, one-inch deep baking pan. The dough is allowed to rise a second time in the pan (after rising first in the original bowl it’s made in). The word s’fincione probably comes from a regional dialect word for sponge, as the dough is thick and airy and can sop up wine or whatever the diner is drinking while eating. A finished sfincione should be about an inch thick, rather resembling a focaccia. The sfincione is covered with crushed or diced fresh tomatoes, with herbs and garlic added, and generously sprinkled with finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Another secret: when I grate my Parmigiano, I cut off pieces to eat just like that. I love sneaking little spoons-ful of fresh tomato paste, too. And, of course, I always indulge in the great old Italian tradition of dunking a piece of crispy, hearth bread into my spaghetti sauce after it’s been simmering a couple of hours. I’m telling you, I know how to eat.
What has evolved into contemporary Sicilian-American pizza stands, in thickness terms, somewhere between the paper-thin, greasy New York style pizza and the ultra-thick, gooey Chicago-style deep dish stuff. I used to swear by deep-dish pizza but as I’ve grown older, I find it nearly impossible to sleep comfortably after gorging on a Pizzeria Uno’s, Gino’s East, or Giordano’s cheesy slab.
My good old Sicilian pan pizza’ll do just fine. In fact, I do believe I’ll make a couple right now.