Architect, illustrator and Food Designer Lucia Amaddeo joined me on a pizza tour in October and created this beautiful illustration inspired by her experience. I love her addition of fresh flowers and fallen leaves. Her moon-shaped Pizza Fritta at the center is a crowd favorite (and mine too!). Check out her work on her Instagram page @lucia.amaddeo
Focaccia di Recco, sister to pizza
The salty sweet focaccia al formaggio di Recco is named for the small town on the Liguria coast from where it originates called Recco. With less than 10,000 residents, Recco is little known if only for it’s focaccia and by water sports enthusiasts for its waterpolo team. Made from flour, water, salt, olive oil and crescenza or stracchino cheese, it’s the focaccia that defies all perceptions of the name.
Regular focaccia is often eaten cold and is known for being thick, a staple on Genovese breakfast tables and mostly eaten as simple as bread alone. In Recco, creamy spreadable cheese melts into a pool of chewy dough on the bottom covered by crunchy dough on top is thin and served hot. The two thin layers of dough about a millimeter thick, filled with cheese, is baked in the oven to order and best consumed piping hot. Baked in a steel, shallow circular pizza pie-like pan, unlike regular focaccia which is usually baked in deeper rectangular baking pans.
While we can all agree pizza is a universally loved food, it’s also one that sparks continued debates. In 1993, the New York Times explored focaccia’s relationship to pizza, as American grocery stores began to fabricate names for frozen foods that claimed to resemble both. General Foods USA made up the world ‘Boboli’ to name a ‘bread shell’ resembling focaccia advising the customer to add sauce and cheese on top making it a ‘boboli,’ similar to a pizza. It’s agreed that what we now know as focaccia came to be enjoyed before pizza as centuries ago people around the world were put slabs of dough under fire and adding olive oil, salt or herbs on top. In the Middle Ages, people used rounds of breads as plates or hallowed out loaves of bread for bowls.
Focaccia means 'under the fire', and in Italy it’s origins are attributed to Liguria. The Ligurian coast is dotted with small towns, many whose populations are less than 3,000, yet have up to five bakeries (panificio) that specialize in Ligurian focaccia (also known as focaccia Genovese) as well as farinata, a large round flatbread made with chickpea flour sold by the kilogram. While focaccia is baked all over Italy, Focaccia di Recco is IGP certified. This means it must always be linked to the place or region where it is produced, processed, or prepared and furthermore, requires greater skills. The real thing is allowed to be produced and sold in Sori, Avegno, and Camogli,the towns surrounding Recco.
While controversy often fuels creativity, especially in Italian kitchens where traditions are passionately preserved and bold chefs after studying these traditions, defy them, focaccia di Recco may appear to be one of these modern twists. However, the earliest documents referring to this gastronomic specialty date back to this time 12th century.
In Recco, visit Moltedo Bakery (Via XX Settembre, 2), the oldest historical bakery in Recco that is still open. Since 1864 it has been family run for five generations. The most famous producer of focaccia di Recco is Manuelina 1885 whose traditional trattoria with an extensive menu of local pastas and main dishes books out weeks in advance in the summertime. If you’re stopping in for a light lunch before going to the beach, head to the focacceria next door. And if you’re Milan don’t miss their outpost near Duomo. In 2014 the Carbone family (Manuelina Carbone was the current generation’s great grandmother) opened an no frills modern take-away casual cafe under La Rinascente near Duomo.
A group of Californians well versed in pizza during a food tour in Milan compared focaccia di Recco to mac-n-cheese. “There’s a cheese drip instead of a cheese pull,” he marveled.
Note: the name of focaccia di Recco on the Milan menu is written focaccia col formaggio in Genovese dialect (they wouldn’t want to get in trouble with the IGP regulators).
Manuelina’s focaccia col formaggio (recipe courtesy of Manuelina)
Ingredients for 6 people:
800g of crescenza 200g water 400g wheat 00 flour 120g of extra virgin olive oil 3 pinches of coarse salt
Mix the flour on a pastry board with 80g of olive oil adding cold water until the dough is very soft. Form a ball, place in bowl and let sit for an hour at room temperature, avoiding cool air. Knead the dough for a few minutes to form another ball. Let it rest for 5 minutes then roll it out into a thin sheet. Work the dough with clenched fists, enlarging it as much as possible, making it as thin as possible - almost transparent. Evenly oil a large, round copper baking tray (50 cm in diameter). Line it with half of the rolled out, think dough. Distribute the soft cheese in small pieces evenly on top of the dough. Cover with the other half of dough, making small holes by pinching it 10 times to release the air from the two stacked layers. Sprinkle with coarse salt and remainder of oil. Distribute oil with palm of hand or pastry brush and gently push down the peaks formed by the mounds of cheese. Please in a hot oven (300 C / 570 F) for about 6 minutes or until golden brown. Serve immediately by cutting in 4-6 pieces.
Since 1935, the Sorbillo family has been feeding Napoli, serving up not only the iconic Pizza Napoletana and (some say even more importantly) a close relative: pizza fritta. Walk the streets of Napoli and you’ll be hard pressed not to find a corner of the city where the scent of fried dough in the air fails to linger. Fried pizza has been said to be as common as Mozzarella di Bufala or Sfogliatelle. There are two likely guesses. Time and money.
Gino Sorbillo is at the helm of the slowly growing family-owned empire alongside his younger brother Antonio. Their father was born into a family of 21 pizzaioli. They all worked to varying degrees in the booming family business of pizza and in the late 30s and 40s, pizza fritta was the affordable option for the unemployed and a fast option at lunchtime for workers rebuilding the city after the war. Pizza fritta is prominently featured in the post-war classic 1954 film D’Oro di Napoli (The Gold of Napoli - start watching at 20.40) directed by Vittorio De Sica where Sophia Loren famously makes pizza fritta in 1930s worn torn Napoli. Unfaithful to her husband, she pretends to lose her wedding ring in the pizza dough to explain why it’s missing. The scene is said to have been filmed down the street where the original Sorbillo still stands near via dei Tribunali with 15 other pizzerias, likely the largest concentration of pizzerias in a city of more than 800.
Beyond the Sorbillo legacy of dough slinging pedigree, Gino Sorbillo ran for mayor some years back and received global notoriety in 2012 when he reopened his pizzeria the day after the Neapolitan mafia set it ablaze. Gino was determined to let Napoli and even more so, Italy know he’d not let them get in the way (and urged neighbors and tourists to do the same). The name Zia Esterina Sorbillo comes from, “Aunt Esterina” one of Gino’s beloved aunts who was said to make the best pizza fritta at Sorbillo. Today in Napoli, two Zia Esterina Sorbillo cater to locals and tourists alike in the city center. Over 1500 pizza fritta of the same found in Milan (to even a longer line outside) are devoured daily.
Pizza fritta is considered low maintenance in the kitchen compared to its older sibling; while the dough and ingredient quality matter (Sorbillo sources organic flour and San Marzano DOP tomato sauce and respected cheeses), the key requirement to its delightfully crisp texture is simple: a pot of hot frying oil. Traditional pizza obsessives (like myself) ponder oven heat temperatures, fire and electricity sources and the sacred dance of the pizzaioli Pizza Napoletana. They assemble, insert, spin, observe and wait as circular pizzas expand inside sweltering ovens, their crusts bubbling up from olive oil and heat. At Sorbillo in Napoli, up to 8 pizzaioli work in unison on two ovens in intimate piping hot quarters. The pizza fritta pizzaiolo, in comparison, some say, has it easy. And the cost of keeping a fryer hot is negligible considering that most pizza ovens these days run on electricity, or burn through large quantities of wood which can be costly.
The line outside Zia Esterina Sorbillo in Milano spills onto a side street near the pulsing tourist center of Duomo. Neapolitan locals and a few tourists assemble early to watch their pizza fritta as it’s made, projected on a live medium-sized TV screen mounted above the open entrance. Surrounded by government buildings, a vibrant shopping district and a bevy of restaurants, Zia Esterina is smaller than a one-bedroom studio apartment. Order from the short menu of four different types of savory pizza fritta whose style and ingredients does not wander from classic Napoli (expect for the Nutella pizza fritta, a modern take). A round circle of dough is filled with a combination of meat or tomato, cheeses and fresh black pepper folded over into a half moon shape. If baked in an oven, this pizza would be called a calzone and for this reason, guests may feel the urge to call it a “fried calzone.” Call it what you want amongst friends, this pizza fritta is as traditional as you’ll find in Northern Italy. The iconic version (recommended by me) is cicoli, ricotta, smoked provola and black pepper. Hard to find anywhere but Napoli, Cicoli is like a poor man’s guanciale (when I called 5 Italian groceries in New York to buy some I was bewildered that a few well-stocked shops didn’t even know what it was). Made from leftover scraps of porkfat once the pig is broken down, it is salted and dry aged, then sliced into thin slices resembling salami. In Sorbillo’s pizza fritta, it’s flavor is mellowed by fresh cow’s milk ricotta and melty smoked provola.
Half submerged in sunflower oil, the pizzaiolo bastes the pizza pocket for about 40 seconds as it inflates, crisping to a light golden yellow. When it comes up for air, it’s gently patted down with butcher paper to ensure crunch and not grease at first bite. Note: the amateur mistake for first timers is in the timing -- it is extremely hot. The best advise any local will share is to wait five minutes before taking a bite. Walk to the nearby Piazza San Fedele or join locals sitting on the curb in the shade with a Peroni in-hand. When cool to touch through the wax paper, carefully squeeze the inside of the pizza fritta from bottom to top to ensure your second or third bite is more than just near perfect fried dough.
I was born and raised just north of New York City and lived in Ohio, San Francisco and Brooklyn before landing in Milan in 2015. I write about food and lead tours for industry and journalists around Italy, from Napoli to New York. Pizza, gelato and Campari are my passion. - Elizabeth T. Jones