Everyone knows the Sicilian-style pizza — thick, square slices topped with tomato sauce and massive quantities of mozzarella. Usually, it’s a subsidiary variety at pizzerias that focus on round, thin-crusted Neapolitan pies. But similar as the two types are in everything but shape and thickness, the Sicilian pie is a tomatoey variation on a long tradition quite distinct from that of Naples.
Yes, we have pizzerias like L & B Spumoni Gardens that favor the Americanized, tomato-and-cheese version of Sicilian pies over Neapolitan, but few pizzerias in the city have pies closer to those served in Sicily, called sfincione. Dominating the corner of Spring and Sullivan in Soho, Famous Ben’s is invariably left off “best of” lists. For decades, I never went inside, scared off by the creepy, leering chef statue that beckons customers from the sidewalk, even though a neon sign proclaims, “Nominated Best Sicilian Pizza In New York.” But by whom, I wondered?
Famous Ben’s debuted in 1979. Its founders were Ben and Debbie Aliotta, based on recipes that came down from his Sicilian immigrant parents. But the joint is now owned by John Notaro and John and Ronald Pasquale.
More properly known as sfincione, Sicilian pizza is more like focaccia of the type currently popular at places like Sullivan Street Bakery, Rosemary’s, and Bread & Salt, with Superiority Burger rumored (at least from my intel) to be opening its own focaccia store. With sfincione, the crust is thick, the slices rectangular and often ungloppy, and tomato sauce and cheese make rarer appearances than is usual in a pizzeria. Traipsing into Famous Ben’s for the first time a few months ago, I was astonished by the unusual slices displayed in its three-tiered glass cases.
The slice called Palermo — named after the Sicilian capital — was especially remarkable. A lovely chestnut brown in color, the top is paved with a thick topping of olive-oiled and browned bread crumbs with a coarse puree of onions underneath. If you’re a fan of onions, this slice ($4.25) shines. Why bread crumbs? Supposedly, in Sicily, where pastas are often dressed with bread crumbs, they were sometimes considered a substitute for the dried cheeses like Romano and Parmesan that were enjoyed with abandon in other parts of Italy.
In Palermo, these slices are often found in focaccerias. These snack shops and restaurants have standing tables where workers can enjoy rice balls, small round sandwiches made with chickpea fritters or cow spleen, a plate of pasta dotted with eggplant or tossed with sardines and fennel, or a slice of sfincione, among other items. (Brooklyn has its own historic focaccerias, too, such as Joe’s of Avenue U, while Manhattan has the modern Pane Pasta.)
Oddly enough, a few years back in Argentina, I’d encountered a similar type of pizza at Banchero in Buenos Aires, founded in 1932, making it one of the oldest pizzerias in that city. It offered a pizza called a fugazzetta, in which a crust turned up at the edges formed a boat for heaps of sauteed onions and was garnished with eggs, tomatoes, and black olives (the onions were the star of the show in this version, as they are in Famous Ben’s Palermo).
The other Sicilian slices at Famous Ben’s are similarly meatless. There’s one tiled with sliced fresh tomatoes and heaped with fluffy sauteed onions, while another features broccoli rabe, mushrooms, and zucchini. Then there’s the tomato-sauce-and-cheese Sicilian slice, certainly one of the best examples in town. The sauce is bright red and pungent, the cheese profuse and nearly cascading over the sides, but best of all is that crust, super hard on the bottom so there’s a satisfying crunch with every bite. Few places take so much trouble with the Sicilian crust, making the rectangular slices here a joy to eat — if you can just get beyond that creepy chef outside.
Check out some earlier amazing-pizza pieces: