Thursday, October 6, 2011
Nino's Focaccia Pizza
I've written a couple of posts about Nino's on Culver Road, with posts about its thick crust, Sicilian-style pizza and the thin crust "Napolitan" pie. But in my conversation with Nino's owner in February 2010, he told me that his personal favorite is the focaccia pizza.
Well, I really enjoyed the other pizzas from Nino's, but you mean to tell me that I hadn't even had the best one?
It took a while, but not long ago I did finally pick up a large focaccia pie. For this one, I decided to leave the toppings entirely to Giacomo - whatever he thought best.
As I was waiting for my pizza, Giacomo - who loves to talk about pizza as much as I love learning about it - explained to me to his focaccia pizza is closely related to another dish, sfingione (which I've also seen spelled "sfincione"). Like a lot of these things, it's hard to pin down a precise definition of sfingione, perhaps partly because the term might mean different things to different people and in different places, even within Sicily, though you can read a general description of this style of bread here and here. Probably because that name is so unfamiliar to most Americans, though, Nino's sticks with the more accessible "focaccia" and "pizza."
Now, when I think of focaccia, I generally picture a rectangular, dimpled bread, with very sparse toppings - maybe just olive oil and rosemary, possibly with a light sprinkling of sharp grated cheese. This wasn't that. My pie came topped with mozzarella and Locatelli cheeses, sausage, portabello mushrooms, roasted red peppers, garlic and onion.
The mushrooms scared me a little bit, as I'm not a big fan of 'shrooms, but one bite allayed my fears. There was a lot going on here, but somehow those toppings all blended together in a veritable symphony of flavor. Pardon my hyperbole, but it's an apt metaphor. My palate could distinguish the various flavors and textures of the individual components, yet they also formed a cohesive whole, the same way that your ears can pick up the sound of particular instruments in an orchestra, yet the overall effect is of hearing one seamless piece of music.
It's not often that I start describing a pizza by talking about the toppings, but that's more a reflection of how good this tasted than of any deficiency in the crust. It was rather thick, with a pan-baked bottom, firm and crisp along the edge, but bready and chewy inside.
One thing that confused me was how this differed from the Sicilian pizza. In fact, it seemed pretty similar. I figured I must be missing something.
So I spoke again to Giacomo and found out that Nino's focaccia and Sicilian pizzas are in fact one and the same thing. Same dough, same process.
But one of the things I love about talking to Giacomo is the way that his love for his craft comes through. Rather than just a simple answer to my question, I got a ten-minute discourse on the etymology of the word "focaccia," the subtleties of working with dough, and the importance of using fresh, local ingredients whenever possible.
As to the focaccia/Sicilian pizza thing, the gist of what I got was that the distinction is more cultural and colloquial than anything else. In Sicily, focaccia is a bread that's often baked at home - the word is derived from the Italian word for fire, "fuoco," since focaccia was traditionally baked in a fireplace or hearth. Pizza tends to be more of a commercial product and is typically more amply topped, with tomatoes, cheese, and more.
That distinction is explained somewhat on Nino's website, which describes focaccia as a thick-crusted, "flat hearth-stone-baked Italian bread [that] can be topped with herbs and other toppings" such as olive oil, rosemary, sage, and coarse salt. It may, though, be "topped with onion, cheese and meat, or flavored with a number of vegetables."
Regarding Sicilian pizza, Nino's has this to say: "Thick and crispy crust on the outside, yet soft right under the sauce. Keeping with the tradition of Sicily, our sauce is sweeter than the usual variety. Made with a thick crust characterized by a rectangular shape and topped with tomato sauce, cheese and optional toppings. Thick crusted slices are cut square, with dough that is over an inch thick. Marinara sauce - Sicilian sauce is a bit sweeter than those found in other types. The body is pureed, which is typical for this style."
So going by those definitions, I guess what I got here would fall more into the focaccia category, given the absence of tomatoes, or who knows, maybe it was really sfingione, but in the end these distinctions are mostly semantic. And my taste buds aren't interested in semantics. Whatever you call it, this was very, very good stuff. (By the way - though Nino's menu lists both focaccia and Sicilian, the prices are the same for each, so no need to worry that you're going to pay more if you order one or the other.)
Nino's isn't the easiest place for me to get a pizza. It doesn't open till 4 p.m., and they don't sell slices, which pretty much limits me to bringing a pie home for dinner, but due to our respective locations it's a long drive for me and it's a challenge to get the pizza home before it cools, even with my pizza bag. But the pizza is good, it's distinctive, and I don't think I've met a pizzeria owner more dedicated to his art than Giacomo. So you can believe me when I say that I'll be back, and I already know what I want. For that, you'll have to wait and see. Until then, Nino's once again merits an A rating from me.
Nino's Pizzeria and Focacceria, 1330 Culver Rd. 14609
Hours: Sun. 4 - 10 p.m., Mon. - Sat. 4 p.m. - 11 p.m.