Thank You, Alabama

You shouldn’t have to congratulate someone for not electing a fecal blossom like Roy Moore, but considering everything he represents, I can’t help but feeling obliged. This is for you, ’bama.

Gino Sorbillo: Making Immigration Great Again

A margherita pepperoni pizza at Zia Esterina Sorbillo on Mulberry Street.

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.

Zia Esterina
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.

The massive pizza fritta at Zia Esterina Sorbillo on Mulberry.

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.”

Sorbillo Pizzeria
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.

The antica margherita pizza at the new Sorbillo Pizzeria on the Bowery, taken by a man who was clearly trembling with hunger and delight.

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.

Thought of the Day: Fun With Sponsorships

I spotted this plaque beneath a flower arrangement in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Someone appears to have set up a fund to continually provide fresh flowers for the lobby area, which is really nice.

Though I cannot help but wonder just how generous I would have to be with my floral fund in order to convince them to post a plaque beneath my flower arrangement that reads:

THESE FRESH FLOWERS ARE THE CONTINUING GIFT OF SATAN

Thought of the Day: The Sharing Economy

What is this “sharing economy” they keep talking about? Airbnb? Uber? Are these people sharing their homes? Are they sharing their cars? No, they are renting them. And that’s an important distinction.

Look, I’m all for making money any way you can, as long as it’s legal. And I often stay in Airbnbs when I travel. But words matter, so let’s be honest with how we describe things.

There is nothing unique about what these people are doing. It’s simply an extension of the traditional economy, the sales and rental economy, in which individuals are trying to monetize everything they can. The only thing really unusual about what they are doing is that they’ve figured out a way to avoid regulations that ensure customer safety and fair business practices.

So, please, stop pretending that these businesses are special or revolutionary. What they are doing is as old as the oldest profession. Yes, I’m talking about prostitution. While I’m sure the disciples of this so-called “sharing economy” would reject the comparison, prostitution is basically Airbnbing your body, if you are working in a brothel, or Ubering your body, if you are working the streets. And that’s not exactly sharing, is it?

Thought of the Day: America First

I get the whole America First thing. Especially for politicians, because we elect them (or, in some cases, the Electoral College elects them, despite the actual vote of the people) to represent us, and our needs.

But my loyalty, first and foremost, is to the human race. I may have been born in America, but I was also born on Earth, which makes me just as much a citizen of the world. And while I appreciate the need to take care of and support my fellow countrymen here in the United States, my ultimate loyalty is to my greater community, that of humanity.

To better understand the America First mindset, let’s take a moment to follow the logic of placing the interests of your country above the interests of mankind. Why do people believe in putting the interests of America before those of the rest of the world? Because they feel like they have more in common with their fellow countrymen than they do with people from afar, which is only natural.

However, by that logic, shouldn’t they then be putting the interests of their state or province above the interests of the nation as a whole, because they have even more in common with them than they do with people in other states? In fact, we have already seen this to some degree, with the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (though they are quickly learning the folly of their own thinking).

Of course, the logical progression would then dictate that they should put the interests of their local city or town above the interests of their state. After all, these are their neighbors, their local community, people with whom they are likely to have the most in common, people they may know and care about.

Fundamentally, what this line of thinking comes down to is putting their own personal interests above everyone else’s. For America Firsters, their home – like their nation – must come first, so they put their interests above even their neighbors’ interests. Ultimately, America First is nothing more than “Me First.” Which is why it’s no surprise that Trump is the posterchild for this sort of selfish thinking, bolstered by a base of people who use false patriotism to mask their self-serving worldview.

These people claim to care about America, but they really only care about themselves…their own little version of what they think America should be. You see it time and time again. They refuse to make a small sacrifice even if it will benefit the greater good, whether helping fellow Americans or everyone around the world.

Climate change is a great example. America is a leader in energy consumption, waste production, and pollution emissions. Yet we also have the means to significantly reduce all of those things but cannot achieve a consensus to do so. Why? Because our nation is filled with people (enough to put Trump in the White House) who are too lazy or too selfish to use less energy, eat less red meat, recycle, etc. despite the fact that such small steps, when done collectively, can have a massive impact – creating a safer, healthier, and wealthier world for everyone’s children, including their own.

And what really galls me is that so many of these America First types call themselves Christians. Would Jesus build walls to protect his disciples while the rest of humanity struggles and suffers outside? No, he was more of an Earth First sort of guy, quite famously putting the interests of all mankind ahead of his own personal interests. Perhaps we should all try to be a little more like him.

Personally, even though I am an atheist, I am an Earth First sort of guy, just like Jesus. And, again, I have never understood why more people, especially those who call themselves Christians, don’t follow his Earth First example. According to your holy scriptures, he died for our sins (not just the sins of Nazarenes, Galileans, or Judeans – but everyone’s sins). And yet, again, you won’t even separate your recyclables? You won’t reduce your carbon footprint, conserve energy, minimize pollution, make the world a better place for your children…and the rest of mankind? For those of us blessed with the opportunity to live in America, these are fairly small sacrifices to make compared to what Jesus would do for you.

And, yes, I understand the whole concept of the nation state, and it certainly made more sense when the world seemed a little smaller. But as I have noted in an earlier post, so many of today’s problems are problems that we all face together, as a species, regardless of our artificial borders and barriers.

For example, there’s the aforementioned challenge of climate change. Oh, wait, you America Firsters are pretending that global warming doesn’t exist because the politicians you support have their pockets stuffed with petroleum-soaked cash from Big Oil lobbyists. OK, fair enough. But the money you think you are saving by not addressing this challenge is a mere drop in the gradually warming ocean compared to what you are going to end up (and already are) spending to combat the growing impacts of climate change, such as the melting of the polar ice, rising sea levels, intensifying storms, failing crops, etc. (not to mention the money you are leaving on the table by not investing in becoming the global leader in green technology, which would surely have enriched the American economy for decades to come).

There’s also the energy crisis, with the eventual exhaustion of fossil fuels, all of which contribute to global warming – and many of which are produced by nations that use the profits to support terrorism. Oh, I forgot, those special interest groups own your politicians, so you have to conveniently look the other way…again. Keep driving that smoke-belching, gas-guzzling Mercedes G-class while your neighbor’s kids are shipped off to defend someone else’s oil fields.

What about social and economic inequities, as the population of have-nots exponentially outgrows the haves, who happen to be getting exponentially richer? You may be able to ignore that for now, but the walls you build today won’t be able to protect your children.

What about overpopulation, which is set to make food security and access to clean water two of the greatest challenges of this century? Again, you can’t build walls high enough to escape those consequences.

And what about health concerns, whether we are talking about plagues that don’t respect borders or simply the need for new antibiotics? Yeah, now you are getting a little worried, aren’t you?

Finally, your favorite…terrorism. If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that this is a global threat that isolationist policies cannot prevent, right?

These, of course, are precisely the kinds of challenges the United Nations is working to address. And whether or not you choose to acknowledge all or any of them because they don’t jive with your political or religious beliefs doesn’t make them any less of a threat.

Like it or not, the one thing we all have in common – everyone on the planet – is that we are all citizens of the world. So, rather than just focusing on what’s best for America (and be honest, we’re really talking about what’s best for ourselves), we should also be focusing on what’s best for mankind. Because, with challenges like these, we’re all in this together. If we don’t tackle these global problems together, there won’t be any borders to defend – or anyone left to defend them.

 

Loving Loving Vincent

Some films deserve to be seen on the big screen. And when they are literally painted works of art – as is the case with Loving Vincent, the first fully painted animated film – big-screen viewing is a must.

The story of this film is almost as fascinating as the film itself. It looks at Vincent van Gogh’s death, an apparent suicide, from the perspective of those who were involved in his final years. It’s based on the artist’s own letters (he was a prolific letter writer) and the people and places he had made famous through his paintings, the latter providing both the characters and the settings for the film.

Once the filmmakers had come up with the script, they cast and filmed real actors against a blank backdrop, using computer animation to add additional elements. That film was then used as a “model” for the artists, 115 professional oil painters, who used it to meticulously paint an individual 67- by 49-centimeter oil painting for each of the finished film’s 65,000-plus frames.

These artists painted the film in Van Gogh’s trademark style, so it looks as if the legendary Dutch master painted the film himself. In fact, not only do they use the settings and characters he painted, but the film actually features 130 of Van Gogh’s original paintings, many of which even I could recognize.

To ensure continuity, the film’s painters started with a blank canvas for each of the film’s 898 individual shots. Then, following the model film frame by frame, they painted over each of these individual paintings to create each subsequent frame. Of course, they paused long enough to photograph each of these paintings with a 6K digital image before proceeding on to the next.

It took them nearly 800 gallons of paint and around five months to accomplish. And the results are even more impressive than the process. You have never seen anything like Loving Vincent. Visually, its spectacular. A thing of beauty that moved me to tears. And the story itself is equally fascinating, to the point that you forget that you are looking at 12 paintings per second and become engrossed with the life and legacy of one of the greatest artists who ever lived.