When I relocated to California for work in the mid-90s, the thing I missed the most – more than my friends and family – was good pizza. One of my new California colleagues remained perplexed about this until I took her to John’s Pizza in New York City. She, as they say, got religion.
New York has the best pizza in the nation. It all started with Lombardi’s, at the turn of the century – last century. Italian immigrants (yes, Trumpy, immigrants making America great again) from Naples brought the dish to America, before it even took off in Italy. Pizza apparently originated in bakeries as a way to cool a spot in the over before baking bread. And over the years, a New York version has slowly emerged.
Staff from the original New York pizzeria, Lombardi’s, went on to start Totonno’s, John’s, and Patsy’s. Of course, Patsy’s has a whole confusing legacy of its own. The original, in East Harlem, has evolved into an almost unique style, and was famously declared by Frank Sinatra to be the finest he’s eaten anywhere on the planet. But staff from there went on to open Grimaldi’s. Both branches licensed out their respective names, resulting in multiple branches of exceedingly substandard quality, and even an additional offshoot, Juliana’s, as a result of a real estate dispute. Sadly, John’s has suffered a similar fate, as the descendants of these great pizza families can’t seem to get along with one another. NY Mag/Grub Street’s Julie Ma breaks it all down better than anyone.
At the turn of this century, a second wave of Italian immigrants – and their American disciples – have spawned a Neapolitan pizza renaissance in the city. From one of the pioneers of this new wave, Roberta’s, to the latest craze, Razza’s, the focus has been on the classic Neapolitan pie. And this time the folks back in Naples, especially piemasters, have taken notice.
Which is why the latest entry in the New York pizza scene is Neapolitan pizza legend Gino Sorbillo. Before he became the pizza king of Naples, Sorbillo used to be a cop. And he endeared himself to the locals in his hometown by battling the mob, as Eater’s Gary He explains in this wonderful feature on the man.
This year, Sorbillo brought his authentic Neapolitan pizza, and his acclaimed brand, to New York City. First he opened Zia Esterina Sorbillo, on Mulberry between Hester and Canal. Named for his aunt, the focus at this casual hole-in-the-wall is on pizza fritta, a deep-fried calzone-like creation that is a popular Italian street food.
I stopped by to try both the pie and the pizza fritta at this unassuming outpost. The crust on the pie doesn’t quite match what you will find at Razza’s or Roberta’s, New York’s reigning Neapolitan pizzerias, but there was something about Sorbillo’s ratio of sauce and cheese that makes it a real contender.
As for the pizza fritta, it’s essentially a pie folded over onto itself and then deep fried. I know that sounds fantastic, but the description hardly does it justice. They use smoked mozzarella in the pizza fritta, and that makes a world of difference. It’s hard to eat, given that the molten innards make it risky to do so by hand, the Italian way, so I swallowed my pride (and it never tasted so good) and opted for a knife and fork for the first half. You definitely need to try this, so bring a friend and you can split one before devouring a regular pie.
The only downside is the neighborhood. Unfortunately, despite his much-touted marketing savvy, Sorbillo opted to open up in Little Italy, which any native New Yorker will tell you is the last place you want to go for authentic Italian anything. It’s a tourist trap, second only to Times Square, where diners are likely to select a restaurant by the volume of “That’s Amoré” being piped into the dinning area and the number of Hollywood “wise guy” photos hanging on the wall. You know, the kind of people who think New Yorkers actually say “fuhgeddaboudit.”
The good news is that Sorbillo has just opened his namesake pizzeria on the Bowery, between 2nd & 3rd Streets. There were many delays and plenty of fanfare, but I stopped by a week after it opened to see if it is worth all the fuss.
First off, the atmosphere. Unlike Zia Esterina, this is a pizza restaurant, a sit-down place. And like many of the city’s top pizzerias, Zia Esterina included, slices are not served. Go big or go home, feeders!
The decor, the ambiance, the vibe can best be described as modern European. And if that sounds like an insult, it’s because it’s meant to be one. The furnishings are like high-end Ikea. It’s very brightly lit. And they have that song playing in the background…you know, that same nondescript song that seems to be playing in the background everywhere you go in Europe…airports, hotel bars, cafes, pizzerias, etc.
The walls are adorned with an abundance of cheap-looking fixtures, signs, and what I presume are meant to be decorations. It was the opposite of cozy. Imagine a European Applebee’s without the big screens everywhere.
OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh. Sure, there are some nice touches, like the cloth napkins, ceramic pizza plates, and a marble bar. But the decorative mirrors on the wall triggered flashbacks to those sad old Greek dinners that used to clog our city, before people realized that you can take breakfast to the next level.
And the service was abysmal. Now, in fairness, this was only their second week, and some of the wait staff clearly were finding their way. I was seated promptly at the bar, unlike some other sap who came in later. And my food came out soon enough, though they forgot to make the last cut, leaving me with two proper-sized slices and two double-sized slices.
It also took forever to get the check, and then have them take my card for processing, and then process and return it. Though maybe they are just trying to give you an authentic Italian experience.
But the pie, you ask? It was really good. Similar to what I had at Zia Esterina, but better. Sort of a cross between Roberta’s and Patsy’s (the East Harlem original, of course).
The cornicione, which is pizza-nerd-speak for the raised edge of the crust encircling the pie, reminded me of classic Neapolitan pizzas like Roberta’s but the crust in the center of the pie, on which the sauce and cheese rest, was super thin and melted in your mouth, like Patsy’s. The cheese was also classic Neapolitan (being an American, I prefer cheese that’s as thick and evenly spread as Kim Kardashian’s mascara, but I do appreciate this style as well, especially when it’s done right…as they do here at Sorbillo). What really set it apart, though, was the sauce. Like Zia Esterina, they seem to have found a good balance, though there was a little more sauce on this one, and it was tangier than most – as opposed to sweet, which is just wrong.
If you love pizza, then Sorbillo’s is definitely worth a visit. The basic pie costs $17, and it’s six slices (unless they fail to cut yours properly as well). That may seem like a lot for an individual, but probably not for someone who read this far in a story about pizza. Besides, the center melts in your mouth and the ends, the cornicione, don’t suddenly turn into a brick inside your belly. In fact, they’re great to soak up the rest of that sauce.