Sicilian Pizza in California

Sicilian Pizza in California

The “Luca” square pizza at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Nov. 11, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

Keegan BillingsHelen Billings

Keegan Billings & Helen Billings

1/3/2024

Updated: 1/9/2024

You might be familiar with New York-, Neapolitan-, Detroit-, or Chicago-style pizza, but another kind has been gaining popularity in Northern California: Sicilian-style pizza.
Sicilian pizza is a square-style pan pizza with a thick focaccia-like crust. It’s crunchy on the bottom and soft and pillowy in the middle.
Square pizza at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Nov. 11, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

Square pizza at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Nov. 11, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

According to the website ALOR Italy, Sicilian pizza is derived from “sfincione,” a focaccia-style type of pizza sold by the slice as street food common to Palermo, Sicily’s capital. It has been around since the 17th century. In the Sicilian dialect, “sfincione” means “large sponge.”
While these days, it’s topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and your choice of meat, the original version was topped with anchovies, raw sheep’s milk cheese, breadcrumbs with grated pecorino cheese, onions, salt, and extra-virgin olive oil.
In Sicily, sfincione was a Christmas treat before panettone came along, according to the website La Cucina Italiana.
J.P. Piccolo, co-owner and chef at Melo’s in Walnut Creek, California, has been making pizza at Melo’s, his family restaurant, since he was 16 years old. He told The Epoch Times that about four or five years ago, he noticed Sicilian pizza gaining in popularity.
“I’m like a major pizza nerd, and I follow hundreds of different restaurants and especially pizzerias, and so I’ve been noticing more and more of these kinds of square Sicilian pan pizzas popping up all over the place,” he said.
J.P. Piccolo at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Dec. 1, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

J.P. Piccolo at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Dec. 1, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

He said it started like trends normally do, in the cities. He started to see more Sicilian square-style pizzas in San Francisco and then in Oakland and Berkeley, and then he saw them being offered in other parts of the East Bay Area.
Square pizza at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Nov. 11, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

Square pizza at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Nov. 11, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

He said Sicilian pizza actually has been around for a long time, especially on the East Coast in the old New York-style slice shops and at the pizzeria Golden Boy in San Francisco, which has been around since the late 1970s and has a huge cult following; the trend is what’s new.
At 12 years old, Mr. Piccolo started cooking with his father and found it fun to take a bunch of ingredients and turn them into a full meal. He also saw that if he cooked, he could leave the dishes for the ones who didn’t.
At 19, Mr. Piccolo went to cooking school in Italy, at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, and that’s where he fell deeper in love with food.
Square pizza at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Nov. 11, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

Square pizza at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Nov. 11, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

Fast forward many years—when COVID-19 hit, while at home, he crafted his own Sicilian pizza recipe. He said he “just started tinkering with it” with his kids and wife as the taste testers.
For Mr. Piccolo, it starts with the dough.
“We make a poolish, which is just essentially equal parts flour and water and then a little bit of yeast,“ he said. ”That gets left at room temperature overnight, and so that’s going to get nice and kind of like bubbly and funky and yeasty.”
He said that in total, his dough goes through “12 hours for the pre-ferment and then 24 hours in bulk and then another 24 hours in ball form, so we’re at 60-plus hours of fermentation time, so it’s like a nice flavorful well-fermented dough.”
Most square pizza, whether Sicilian or Detroit, is going to use high hydration doughs, which have a lot of water in them, he said.
He said he uses a really nice flour from Central Milling, which is a local flour company in Petaluma, California, in the North Bay Area. He adds extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt, and then he mixes the dough in a big spiral mixer.
“We parbake them in the morning that we’re going to cook them. We cool them, and then to order, we top them and they get baked in our pizza master oven, which is kind of specifically designed to cook these type of pan pizzas,” he said. “Anytime we were talking about a square pizza, we’re talking about a pan style pizza that’s going to be a little bit thicker crust, almost focaccia-like, and then a good amount of toppings.”
He uses Bianco DiNapoli brand tomatoes, which are organic California tomatoes.
The “Luca” square pizza at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Dec. 1, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

The “Luca” square pizza at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Dec. 1, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

His most popular square pizza is the “Luca,” named after his son. It’s topped with pepperoni, mozzarella, and burrata cheese and drizzled with hot honey.
He also serves “The Vodka” square pizza, topped with house-made vodka sauce, smoked mozzarella, salami picante, pickled hot cherry peppers, and basil. His “Fig Jam” is topped with fontina cheese, fig jam, bacon, arugula, and shaved parmigiano.
He also has a square pie called the “Potato,” topped with Yukon Gold potatoes, mozzarella, fontina, Parmigiano cheeses, rosemary, chives, black pepper, and caramelized onions.
Melo’s opened a new location in September 2023 in Walnut Creek called “Melo’s Italian Table”; that’s where you’ll find Mr. Piccolo’s square pizza creations.
The front entrance to Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Dec. 1, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

The front entrance to Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Dec. 1, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

Mr. Piccolo said: “We just call them squares, because we’re just kind of doing our own thing, but I would say it’s definitely a hybrid. I think the dough is really similar to Sicilian dough, and we topped them kind of similar to how you would see Detroit-style pizzas are topped.”
He said when he puts the pizza in the pan for it to be cooked, he lines the edges with extra cheese so that it melts in between the edge of the dough and the pan itself, and it forms a kind of crunchy and melty cheesy edge, almost like a grilled cheese sandwich on the side.
A Vespa scooter on display at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Dec. 1, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

A Vespa scooter on display at Melo’s Italian Table in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Dec. 1, 2023. (Helen Billings/The Epoch Times)

He wanted to offer square pizza because it lends itself to having a lot of yummy toppings on it, whereas with a really thin crust pizza, you can only get so creative, he said.
“It’s a fun, different style. It’s really crunchy on the bottom and then kind of like light and fluffy in the middle ... and they’re delicious,” Mr. Piccolo said. “I think another big reason that we wanted to put them on our menu is because it’s underserved in the area; you don’t see them very often. And we wanted to be unique in that we’re kind of on the cutting edge of bringing that style to this area.”
We also talked to Vincent Sbarro, the owner of Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Martinez, California. His mom is from Sicily, and his grandfather started the Italian eatery chain Sbarro in malls across the United States. He started making pizza when he was just a little boy in the malls of the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Vincent Sbarro at his pizzeria in Martinez, Calif. (Courtesy of Vincent Sbarro)

Vincent Sbarro at his pizzeria in Martinez, Calif. (Courtesy of Vincent Sbarro)

Mr. Sbarro said that he has definitely noticed Sicilian pizza growing in popularity, especially on the West Coast. He said there are also other styles of pizza that have gotten more popular, including the Detroit style.
Sicilian pizza at Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Martinez, Calif. (Courtesy of Vincent Sbarro)

Sicilian pizza at Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Martinez, Calif. (Courtesy of Vincent Sbarro)

“I like doing the Sicilian because it’s a simple, nice-looking pizza that’s very light and airy as you eat it, and it just gives the customer a different style of pizza rather than the traditional New York style,” Mr. Sbarro said. “It’s a different style, but yet you can still use a lot of the same type of dough that you would use for regular New York style; it’s just prepared a different way as far as the way you proof the dough and how you cook it in the oven.
“I’m just trying to stay with the trends and also be a trendsetter. I like the fact that I can give the customer another style of pizza and have it be just as good as anywhere else! Even in Brooklyn, New York!”
Mr. Sbarro said his customers really like his Sicilian pizza and look forward to getting it on Wednesdays, the only day he prepares Sicilian slices unless you call ahead. He tops it in classic styles such as pepperoni, cheese, and combination.
Sicilian pizza at Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Martinez, Calif. (Courtesy of Vincent Sbarro)

Sicilian pizza at Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Martinez, Calif. (Courtesy of Vincent Sbarro)

He said what’s unique about his Sicilian pizza is the simplicity of it. For him, the portioning of toppings is very important. One of his philosophies is “less is more.”
He said another square pizza style that has gotten popular is “grandma pie, and he might continue to make it even more than his Sicilian.
Sicilian pizza at Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Martinez, Calif. (Courtesy of Vincent Sbarro)

Sicilian pizza at Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Martinez, Calif. (Courtesy of Vincent Sbarro)

“I have been making pizzas and Sicilian pizzas since I was the age of 14,” Mr. Sbarro said. “I am 54 now. My mom’s side of the family is from Palermo, Sicily. So I’m very familiar with some specialty Sicilian dishes and desserts, but still, none of my food would be as good as my mom’s!”
He said his grandfather, the founder of the Sbarro Italian eatery that you see in shopping centers, colleges, airports, and so on, started the eatery with his dad and uncles in Brooklyn, New York.
They immigrated from Naples, Italy, and started it off as a delicatessen with no pizza at the time.
“It was more of a deli that served hot steam table items and fresh cold cuts like mortadella, prosciutto, salami, all imported products,” he said. “My grandfather was an artist as far as making these beautiful catering baskets with all these imported meats, cheeses, wines; and he’d make these beautiful baskets and sell them.”
He said that over time, they gradually got into the pizza part of it.
“If you go back in time in the pizza industry in New York, it goes back many years, but I would like to say that my family was one of the ones that kind of came up with pizza by the slice in the malls; that was the model,” he said.
Mr. Sbarro said one of the most important ingredients is the cheese, and he uses the brand called Grande Cheese Co.
“In my opinion, they are the best, but if I cannot source that cheese, my next go-to is Galbani. The other important ingredient is your sauce. Again, I use the best sauce, in my opinion, which is Stanislaus. Occasionally, I will try other brands, but I think overall they are the best,” he said.
Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Martinez, Calif., on Dec. 1, 2023. (Keegan Billings/The Epoch Times)

Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Martinez, Calif., on Dec. 1, 2023. (Keegan Billings/The Epoch Times)

Mr. Sbarro said he also competes, and he entered the pizza competition called the “Real California Pizza Contest,” put on by Real California Milk, one of the biggest dairy producers in the United States.
(Courtesy of Vincent Sbarro)

(Courtesy of Vincent Sbarro)

He took home $5,000 for winning his category, “The Real Californian,” which the contest calls a “wild card” category allowing pizza chefs to create a signature California pizza recipe. The goal is to feature ingredients that showcase the best of the Golden State with a special focus on Real California Cheese.
Since Mr. Sbarro makes several styles of pizza, his entry for the contest wasn’t his Sicilian pizza.
“I made a pizza with eggplant, roasted red bell peppers, Sicilian olives, and three types of Real California Milk cheeses, and the three types of cheeses that I used for this recipe [were] fontina, whole milk mozzarella, and feta cheese,“ he said. ”This contest is once every year, and it’s held in Napa, California, but contestants come from all over the United States. I am still on cloud nine and excited about my win!”
The top floor entrance to Eataly in San Jose, Calif., on Dec. 29, 2023. (Keegan Billings/The Epoch Times)

The top floor entrance to Eataly in San Jose, Calif., on Dec. 29, 2023. (Keegan Billings/The Epoch Times)

Dino Borri, the global vice president of “Eataly,” a megastore that brings all things Italian cuisine under one roof, told The Epoch Times that he has noticed over the past few years that there’s more knowledge from consumers about Italian regionality, and because of that, it’s more common to understand that there isn’t just one type of pizza, but so many different types in every area of Italy.
He explained why he thinks Sicilian pizza is more prevalent in New York.
“Historically, immigration from Italy was more prevalent on the East Coast, which is why there is a close tie to the Italian community in New York. However, thanks to social media and other factors today, it is easier than ever to find the beauty in the biodiversity of Italian food. There is a modern way of interpretation of Italian food that has found its way across the United States, including California.”
Pizza slices on display at Eataly’s quick service counter in San Jose, Calif., on Dec. 29, 2023. (Keegan Billings/The Epoch Times)

Pizza slices on display at Eataly’s quick service counter in San Jose, Calif., on Dec. 29, 2023. (Keegan Billings/The Epoch Times)

He said the only real secret is to use the best ingredients possible for every dish, including Sicilian pizza.
“At Eataly, we use the best available ingredients that are on the market,” he said.
He said every time Eataly adds a new product to its menus, it comes from the research of Italian tradition.
Mr. Borri said for pizza, the two most important ingredients are water and flour. Of course, Sicilian pizza made in California uses water from California. Pizza dough is a live product, and it’s influenced by the area that it’s surrounded by because of the water used.
“Eataly doesn’t just sell food, but we sell culture, and through our food, we try to teach the geography and biodiversity of Italy,” Mr. Borri said. “Similar to how we celebrate over 100 different Italian wines in our stores, we are excited to be celebrating Italian pizza styles from the North to the South. And since we have offered some great Sicilian wines to our customers, we are now happy to pair the Sicilian wine with our Sicilian pizza.”
Mr. Borri said many customers say, “I haven’t ever heard of Sicilian pizza,” while some say, “Finally there is Sicilian pizza at Eataly!” Some have even said, “Your Sicilian pizza is better than what I’ve had in Sicily,” which he said Eataly always takes as a compliment.
A “Siciliana in Teglia” pizza slice from Eataly in San Jose, Calif., on Dec. 29, 2023. (Keegan Billings/The Epoch Times)

A “Siciliana in Teglia” pizza slice from Eataly in San Jose, Calif., on Dec. 29, 2023. (Keegan Billings/The Epoch Times)

One of the dishes offered at the three-story Eataly store in San Jose is a “Siciliana in Teglia” pizza slice topped with Mutti tomato, house-made breadcrumbs, Taggiasca olives, semi-dried tomatoes, and oregano.
Mr. Borri said since Eataly opened in 2007, it has been offering different styles of pizza across its stores, from restaurants to quick service counters. He said pizza is one of the Icons of Eataly, meaning that it’s one of the most iconic products from the peninsula of Italy, and they celebrate the many regional varieties, from pizza Romana to focaccia Barese to Neapolitan and Sicilian pizza.
The bottom floor mall entrance to Eataly in San Jose, Calif., on Dec. 29, 2023. (Keegan Billings/The Epoch Times)

The bottom floor mall entrance to Eataly in San Jose, Calif., on Dec. 29, 2023. (Keegan Billings/The Epoch Times)

“We also work with schools in Italy and beyond to bring the best knowledge about making pizza to our stores. An example is Rossopomodoro, our partner that specializes in Neapolitan pizza and has a pizza school in Naples, Italy,” Mr. Borri said. “Every person who works for Eataly has a passion for the quality of food. With over 40 stores worldwide, we make sure to collaborate with pizzaioli that live and breathe the craft—they have flour, tomato, and mozzarella di Bufala in their blood.”
Copy
facebooktwitterlinkedintelegram
Keegan Billings

Keegan Billings

Author

Keegan is a reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and he covers Northern California news.

Author's Selected Articles
Helen Billings

Helen Billings

Author

Helen Billings is a Certified Western Herbalist, and has studied Holistic Nutrition and Homeopathy. She is a reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and she covers California news.

Author's Selected Articles
California Insider
Sign up here for our email newsletter!
©2024 California Insider All Rights Reserved. California Insider is a part of Epoch Media Group.