Still Life with Anchovies, by Antonio Sicurezza, 1972.
Recipe Below: Pane Cunzato
Anyone who follows my blog knows how crazy I am for anchovies. In my opinion a sandwich of only anchovies is a beautiful thing. In the summer a drippy tomato sandwich with olive oil and just about any decent bread is always a hit. The addition of a few anchovies elevates it to high art. When I first visited Sicily and was introduced to pane cunzato, a panino of peasant origin that contains tomatoes, anchovies, and primo sale, well, that was just too much. That sandwich was designed just for me. It tugged at my Sicilian soul.
Cunzare means to dress. In its most peasant form, dressing pane cunzato can mean only a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of dried oregano. With good oil, that’s a nice panino. But now we expect pane cunzato (or cunzatu, as it’s more often spelled in Sicily) to have tomatoes, anchovies, dried oregano, and primo sale, a very young pecorino cheese. And like many foods with humble roots, it has become somewhat trendy, with Sicilian chefs sometimes getting a little too creative, presenting it as an open-face bruschetta with its ingredients artfully arranged in a peak, or as a giant roll stuffed with eggplant, tomatoes, tuna, capers, and olives, making it more like the Niçoise pan bagnat, which I love. But the cunzato was originally conceived as a much simpler food.
I first tasted cunzato in San Vito lo Capo, Sicily, a beach town famous for the grand couscous festival it holds every June. I rolled into town way past couscous and beach season, but a few panini shops were open, and I zeroed right in on the sandwiches that contained anchovies. I wasn’t wrong to do so. The cunzato was soft and hot, made with bread that seemed pulled straight from the oven, not toasted. Usually these are round flat rolls made with durum wheat flour. When I fashion a cunzato at home I often purchase small focaccie from Sullivan Street Bakery, and after filling them I wrap them in foil and stick them in the oven for about 5 minutes, so they steam heat.
Since I’ve gone herb wild this summer, this time around I’ve replaced the traditional dried oregano in this cunzato with fresh marjoram and a little lemon thyme. Really delicious, but if you want to experience a more authentic version, find good Sicilian dried oregano and just crumble a little into each panino.
Note: If you can’t find primo sale, a young Sicilian or Tuscan pecorino will work well. The cheese should be soft. You don’t want an aged, hard pecorino here.
Not my photo, but a good one, from Scopello, Sicily.
(Makes 2 single-serving cunzati)
2 sandwich-size focaccie, without added flavor such as rosemary, sliced horizontally.
Extra-virgin Sicilian olive oil (Olio Verde is a great choice)
2 large, round summer tomatoes, thinly sliced
9 salt-packed Sicilian anchovies, filleted, soaked, and then roughly chopped
¼ pound primo sale or another young, soft pecorino cheese, grated with the large hole of your grater, or shaved
A few large sprigs of fresh marjoram, the leaves lightly chopped
A few large sprigs of lemon thyme or regular thyme, the leaves lightly chopped
1 fresh summer garlic clove, minced
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place the bottom sides of the focaccie on two large pieces of aluminum foil, cut side up (the foil should be just big enough to wrap up the panini when filled). Drizzle the cut faces of them and the top sides (all four pieces) with a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil. Layer the tomatoes onto the face-up bottom sides, and season with a very little bit of salt. Scatter on the anchovies. Top with the cheese. Sprinkle with the herbs, garlic, and black pepper.
Close up the panini, and wrap them in the foil. Press lightly to flatten them a bit. Stick them in the oven for about 5 minutes, just to warm them through.
I find that cunzati taste especially good with a glass of grillo, a crisp, dry Sicilian white wine.