“You want sauce oozing out it,” says Carmel Ruggeri as she spoons a rich tomato and onion sauce onto the round of dough in front of her. With a sprinkle of cheese, a few quick folds and a stop in a hot oven, a few simple ingredients are transformed into a folded flatbread that’s been a Sicilian staple since the 17th century.
Scacce Ragusane takes its name from the province of Ragusa, in the deep south of the island.
It’s where Ruggeri’s family comes from and where she spends part of every year.
Sydney-based Ruggeri is the owner of Sicilian Food Tours, and many of the participants on her tours get to enjoy a lesson in making scacce with her aunt, Zia Maria, and her cousin Carmel. “Yes, another Carmel!” she says.
A rustic folded bread that’s like a cross between a calzone and a lasagne, with the folds creating layers of dough and filling within the pocket, scacce is a popular street food in the Ragusa region. Fillings range from that rich tomato and onion sauce to ricotta and sausage, eggplant and, at Easter, a special lamb and potato version.
“Scacce is a Sicilian way of saying focaccia,” she explains. “There are different ways to fold them, and it depends on which region you're from.”
Along with various rectangular versions, there’s also a pie shape and a calzone-like half-moon. And there’s friendly debate about where the scacce originated too: “The Modicana, people from Modica, they believe that they were the original ones that did it, but if you ask somebody from Ragusa - Ragusa city - they'll say that we were the ones that obviously invented it!”
These bread pockets were developed to make precious ingredients go further, with local traditions saying they’ve been made this way since at least the 17th century.
“Whatever was in season, to make it go further for the family, they would put it inside bread, to make it a full meal,” Ruggeri explains. “They had the necessities all the time – flour and yeast, so all they had to do was add water and make a pastry, and use whatever vegetables they had in the garden. And then as time went by, cheese got introduced.” Caciocavallo is often used, and ricotta too.
While you could use anything you like as a filling, a few variations are especially popular.
“The basic one is the cipudatta – cipudda means onion, so that’s a tomato and onion sauce. People will now sprinkle a bit of pecorino on there. Then there’s sciurietto, which is cauliflower and broccoli, and again cheese. Some people add the tomato sauce to it. There’s also a spinach with currents version, and sausage with ricotta and parley and pecorino, and an eggplant one. The three most popular are the tomato and onion, the eggplant, and the sausage and ricotta.
“As you can imagine, like everything else in Italy, from village to village to village the recipes are so different. My mother, compared to my aunt, they are from two different towns, so my Dad’s side and my Mum's side, they will make it differently.”
There’s something about the satisfying simplicity of this folded flatbread that sends people into the kitchen. I initially make contact with Ruggeri by email; when I call two days later to discover more about scacce, she tells me she invited her sister over and they had made scacce together the day before. The parallel to a conversation a few weeks earlier with Australian-Japanese food writer Emiko Davies, who has lived in Italy for more than a decade, delights me because Davies did exactly the same thing. “I’m inspired to make some scacce Ragusane right now, I have all the ingredients, it will take me back to our trip to Ragusa a couple of years ago where we ate these!” she says in an email. And she does (you can see her lovely tale of her visit to the region, and her deliciously saucy scacce, on her Instagram account and her recipe in her Instagram stories.)
“They’re about the size of a good book or a nice little parcel, you can eat them warm, hot or cold. Fantastic street food that you can find in the bakeries in Ragusa and nearby towns like Scicli and Modica. Scacce modicane are essentially the same," Davies says.
“Such a hit at our house! … I made the classic one with a tomato sauce (made with a couple of slowly stewed onions, tomato passata and fresh basil, cooked for one hour then cooled) and a simple dough of semolina (fine ground semola, of durum wheat), yeast, a bit of water and olive oil.”
Just as there are variations on the fillings and the finished shape, the dough varies too.
Ruggeri uses fine semolina, olive oil, yeast (dried and fresh yeast work equally well, she says) and salt, while Michael Bonacini, who shares his recipe for a ricotta and fennel seed version in Bonacini’s Italy, makes a yeastless dough.
“That’s not as traditional, but there’s so much variation,” Ruggeri says. “I used flour for a long time, but for the past year or so I’ve been using semolina, and I find I get a better consistency. Whereas my aunt in Italy, she makes it just with whatever flour she's got! But she knows how to adjust the water and the yeast. And some will put the napkin on at the end [after the scacce comes out of the oven], to make sure it softens the pastry, whereas my mother, she likes the crunchy pastry. And because she likes it crunchy, she might put an egg wash on it. And some people even put an egg in the dough, although I’ve never done that.
“It’s like everything, you just need to practice and see what works best for you.”
Ruggeri can first remember eating scacce when she was about eight.
“My aunt in Melbourne, Zia Dora, she’s like the queen of scacce. It would have been Easter, and the family were all together here in Sydney and she and Mum were making them. And I remember it fondly because it was this big event. It was like there was 300 people in the house - there was probably only 10 of us but it was like feeding 300 people. I remember it clearly and I remember the the sausage and the ricotta scacce tasting incredible, and even until today the sausage and ricotta ones and the tomato ones are my favourites.”
Ruggeri says she’s learnt most of her scacce making from another aunt, Zia Maria, during all the visits to Sicily she’s made over the years, and more recently the cooking lessons and Sunday feasts held during her food tours. “I’ve watched her make them a lot for the past ten years. We spend a lot of our time together.”
Inspired by the enthusiasm Ruggeri and Davies show in jumping into the kitchen to make these, I have to try it too.
“Don’t worry about the shape,” says Ruggeri as I try rolling some dough to make my first scacce ragusana.
This is reassuring because while she had rolled a lovely circle when showing me how beautifully soft and supple this dough is, my attempt creates something that is, appropriately, closer to the ragged shape of Sicily. I’m too busy inhaling her tales of bakeries packed with all kinds of scacce (her tour guide tip – ring ahead, as the bakeries close between 1pm and 5pm and often sell out well before closing time) to pay as much attention as I normally would to rolling out the dough. (Pop over to her Instagram page to take a peek into a Sicilian panificio and its many types of scacce!)
She’s right though; despite a ragged shape, and the fact that I leave it in the oven a little too long, my first scacce ragusane is delicious. The tomato and onion is very good, but my favourite is a version made with boiled broccoli and cauliflower, a few sun-dried tomatoes, and a little of the cipudatta sauce (you can get Ruggeri’s scacce recipe, including the dough, and four different fillings options, on her Sicilian Food Tours website).
Bonacini says when he makes his version, “There’s only one thing better than freshly baked bread in life and that is freshly baked bread that you baked.” He’s right. My scacce fills the kitchen with wonderful bready smells, and tastes delicious. I think there might be one thing even better, though – visiting Ragusa and heading to a bakery to buy scacce right where it was born. It’s now on my travel bucket list. And in the meantime, I’ll be making a lot more of this fabulous folded focaccia.
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