Five hundred years ago, wooden crates full of round, golden, Aztec berries creaked and slid around the cluttered hull of a massive Spanish carrack, swaying in harmony with the momentum of the Atlantic Ocean, as compasses, quadrants and astrolabes directed the ship and its crew back to the shores of the Old World. This New World nightshade was the 16th century version of what was referred to as the tomatl in the Uto-Aztecan language, Nahuatl. Unbeknownst to them, just a couple of centuries later this very plant would become a staple in Mediterranean cuisine, and by the 21st century over 177 million tons would be cultivated annually in more than 7,500 different varieties.
Italian physician and botanist, Pietro Andrea Mattioli recorded the presence of this “new type of eggplant” for the first time in the year 1544. He decided to name them “pomi d’oro,” or golden apples. This subsequently became the Italian word for tomato: pomodoro. Since then, the plant has served as a fundamental part of various dishes, most notably pizza.
In my opinion, one of the most mouth-watering versions of this Italian classic is the sfincione, the predecessor of the famous ‘Sicilian slice’. Still served today, especially in the Palermo area, its tall sponge-like crust, caramelized onions, and rich tomato sauce–often topped with breadcrumbs and anchovies– hog the main stage and make the small servings of strongly flavored cheeses like caciocavallo, take the backseat.
But how exactly did this traditional square pizza, advertised on the streets of Sicily’s capital in melodic shouting matches, or “abbanniata” in Sicilian dialect, become a pizza parlor classic in the northeastern United States? To get to the bottom of the Sicilian slice’s origin story, and the essentials of this evolved edible delight, I decided to consult an expert, Dominic Morano.
Who? Dom is the 26 year old Staten Island native that has been running the show at Prince Street Pizza. Founded by his industrious father Frank, in 2012 following the closing of the original Ray’s location, this NoLita pizza joint is so popular that its narrow dimensions are practically covered with pictures of celebrities who just had to give the place a try. Lines are usually out the door, just in case the penetrating aroma of the pizza was not enough to grab your attention, so it’s best to go during off-hours.
Despite his Calabrian origins, Dom names family preference as the reason why they decided to center their menu around the Sicilian slice. He also gave credit to the Bensonhurst pizzeria L & B Spumoni Gardens, which he recognized as being “the first pizza place to start being famous for a Sicilian slice.” Prince Street Pizza takes a slightly different approach, however. For one thing, their signature slice is teeming with premium sliced salami, hence the name the Pepperoni Square. This delicious Americanization of the sfincione is sporadically served alongside its more traditional counterpart, which has been cleverly labeled with catchy alliteration for a non-Italian clientele: the Broadway Breadcrumb. Dom highlighted the major differences between the two slices: the latter has no fra diavolo sauce, no meat, and no muzzarell’, instead it boasts a little bit of pecorino romano, sautéed onions, and a sprinkling of pangrattato. The style, he says, remains “basically the same.”
It is quite remarkable if you really think about it. The tomato plant, which was radically different in appearance and taste half a millennium ago, traveled from the Americas to Western Europe, developed and grew to become a pillar of Italian cuisine, giving birth to focacce, pizze, and sfincioni, then returned to the New World at the dawn of the 20th century in the form of pizza, and establishments like Lombardi’s took this dish and slightly altered it, causing it to morph into something different and fundamentally American.
Dom recognizes the fact that some Italians feel like something of theirs was stolen, but he sees American pizza as its own separate category, and appreciates its function as a unifier during such divisive times. “If you could think about one food in the world that generally everybody on earth loves, it’s pizza. Pizza does not discriminate. It doesn’t care if you’re black, white, brown, polka dot. It doesn’t matter. Everybody, at one point in their life, has eaten or still does eat pizza. Pizza is the only food that makes people that happy. In the recent years that I’ve seen, pizza has become something of its own. It became something different. Pizza became crazy. It boomed up to the point to where it became like a social media thing. It was never like that when I grew up, you went to your local pizza spot, you didn’t know if it sucked or if it didn’t, you just ate it. And now it became a big thing. It became its own separate culture. It’s a pizza culture.”
Embracing the culinary heritage of the past, while refusing to limit themselves to canonical recipes and technique, Prince Street Pizza serves as a reminder of the constant evolution that food undergoes through time. The neighborhood that the pizzeria is located in, once home to Little Italy, now referred to as NoLita or sometimes a part of SoHo, has evidently experienced a transformation perhaps more stark than that of the pizza being served there. However, Dom and his family have not forgotten the Prince Street of yesteryear. “We have a lot of history here, my grandfather grew up on Mott Street, my grandmother grew up on Elizabeth, my great-grandmother grew up on Delancey. My parents, when they got married, their wedding reception was in the Ray’s restaurant next store, so there is a lot of history here.”
Grandpa Morano, whose picture is on the PSP pizza boxes, would undoubtedly be proud of the great contribution that Dom and his father, Frank, have made to the neighborhood with their restaurant. As the hungry customers continue to file in and out, and whispers of a second location begin to grow louder, Prince Street Pizza and their sfincioni 2.0 are definitely here to stay.