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.

Chick’nCone Waffles

I stopped by Gansevoort Market on my way to the Whitney the other night and discovered that The Meatball Guys, who were charging $6 for a single meatball (albeit an artisanal, fairly delicious meatball), had gone out of business. They were replaced by Chick’nCone, which takes the inherent glory of fried chicken and waffles and turns it into what’s supposed to be a hand-held, on-the-go version of the dish – basically an ice cream waffle cone filled with chicken chunks.

For under $9, it’s competitive with the rest of the offerings at Gansevoort Market. But the Chick’nCone tastes more like an industrialized version of itself, more akin to something Tyson might have extruded into a bag and stuffed onto the shelves of your supermarket’s freezer aisle than the artisanal creation it’s posing as.

In fairness, the chunks of chicken, albeit overly sweet and soggy from all the sauce, were at least quality meat. Which is almost a shame because they smother it with so much sauce (I would have loved to try a sauce-free version) that they could have easily gone with McNuggetesque bird scraps and you wouldn’t really be able to tell the difference. But the real problem was the waffle cone, which was way too sweet and fragile – like one of those supermarket waffle cones instead of one you’d find in a high-end creamery.

Chicken and waffles work so well together because of the combined taste and the texture. But if you pour globs of sweet BBQ sauce onto soggy chunks of chicken stuffed into a sugary, brittle cone, then that’s an entirely different combination – and not a winning one as far as I’m concerned.

Corner Slice and the Gotham West Market

Given all the hype Corner Slice has received, it took me forever to get over to Gotham West Market and try this new pizza joint for myself. Though Eleventh Avenue between 44th and 45th Streets, where this food hall is located, isn’t exactly a convenient location. And despite all the new development that’s been slowly creeping west along 42nd Street, there’s little if any reason to wander over that way – other than the perennial reason that is the Landmark Tavern.

But I was headed to Pier 94 for Art New York, the annual international contemporary and modern art fair. So I decided to approach from the south, grabbing a late lunch at Gotham West along the way.

This relatively new food hall is a nice looking place. And it seemed spacious, though likely due to the fact that it was completely empty on a Thursday afternoon, despite crowds starting to amass nearby to heckle El Trumpo, who was paying a visit to the Intrepid…presumably in search of more seamen.

I went straight to Corner Slice, which is indeed located in the corner of the food hall. They specialize in what most New Yorkers call a “grandma” slice, though even that has many variations. In a nutshell, it’s basically a traditional, thin crust with a Sicilian shape – rectangular pies cut into square slices. The real distinguishing factor is the heavier sauce, which typically includes chunks of tomatoes, along with slightly less cheese. And some go as far as putting the sauce on top of the cheese, but the Corner Slice has the cheese on top with the tomato chunks occasionally busting through.

I ordered a slice of their margherita and a slice of soppressata, which is their version of pepperoni. With a small iced root beer, it came to $9.75, which isn’t bad given all the fanfare.

And the pizza wasn’t bad, either. It wasn’t particularly warm, but it was a good grandma slice – on par with what you can get a neighborhood places like Delizia’s. Their dough might give them a slight edge, as it’s similar to focaccia bread.

Corner Slice might have genuinely impressed if the pizza had been fresh, or at least a little warmer, perhaps with another sprinkle of cheese. But that’s how they served it, so that’s how I’m judging it. After all, it’s not like they were in a rush…there was only one other customer besides myself.

Being a food hall, Gotham West Market has a number of other options to choose from. And in an impressive (and, let’s be honest here, totally unprecedented) feat of self-control, I was able to walk by Ample Hills, which is one of the vendors there, without ordering their salted crack caramel ice cream. Yes, I’m actually crediting myself with not eating something, because that shit is so damn good that resisting it becomes noteworthy.

As for Corner Slice, I don’t think it lived up to the heavy hype. Maybe it did when it first opened, but that was less than two months ago. They can’t be phoning it in already, can they? Or maybe if you live in that area, which still remains a relative wasteland of culinary options, something like Corner Slice would seem like a gift from the gods. But it can’t even compare to the four pillars – John’s (Bleecker Street), Patsy’s (East Harlem), Lombardi’s (Spring Street), and Totonno’s (Coney Island) – let alone something like Roberta’s.

I might give it another try if I am ever in the neighborhood again. Perhaps on my way to next year’s Art New York? But unless you have a reason to be over there, you can probably do just as well with a grandma slice from your local pizza joint.

 

Vape, Vape, Vape and the Edibles

I’ve already touted the joys of vaping, but I wanted to follow-up on another aspect of vaping: edibles. You see, not only do I use about a third less marijuana when vaping than I used when smoking, but I can also make edibles from that thrice-vaped weed.

Having amassed a generous amount of ABV (Already Been Vaped) marijuana, I decided it was time to experiment with using it to make edibles. Recipes for making edibles from ABV vary widely in terms of both measurements and methodologies.

As noted, I typically vape my weed three times, meaning I’ll vape the same “bowl” on consecutively higher temperatures to get three separate “sessions” out of it (which is amazingly economical when you consider that I would have blown through that bowl in a single session using traditional smoking methods). As a result, my ABV tends to be a darker cocoa brown than most of the images I’ve seen in ABV recipes online. So I figured I’d need to use more of it, though I remained mindful of the cautions concerning using too much…Maureen Dowdism.

There also seemed to be some confusion across the Internet as to whether you need to heat or even cook the stuff, the way you would when trying to extract the goodness from regular marijuana. The answer is no, you do not heat or cook the ABV. You can simply use it “as is.”

ABVpbuttoast

I took a level tablespoon ABV, ground it into a powder, and then mixed that with about 4 ounces of peanut butter. I then let is sit overnight so the oil could absorb it (apparently that helps get it into your bloodstream better). The following day, I took half of that peanut butter – about 2 ounces – and spread it on toast.

I thought I felt an immediate hit, but I must have just been giddy with excitement. After about 30 minutes, I was wondering. But, by 50 minutes, I could definitely feel it coming on. And by the hour-mark, I knew I didn’t need to eat the rest. I had a nice pleasant buzz – nothing too debilitating – for at least five hours (I went to sleep around then, so hard to tell precisely).

The following weekend I spread the other two ounces – which had been sitting in a covered container all week – on toast and ate that. The results were the same but I actually woke up the next morning with a mild buzz – a good 12 hours later. That’s pretty impressive.

Moving forward, I now feel I’ve got a good handle on this. I’m going to try a heaping teaspoon of ABV, ground and mixed in with peanut butter, and see how that works. There are three teaspoons in a tablespoon, so I’m thinking this might be a good dosage that won’t leave me fried the following morning.

So, not only do I get three sessions out of what I used to consume in one, but the scrap can be collected to make no-need-to-cook edibles. Add in the fact that vaping has to be healthier than smoking, and I’m even more excited about all of this. Vape, Vape, Hooray!

Eating Salad the Fun Way

Sala0I’m not a salad guy. But having recently turned 50, I need to make some changes.

Fortunately, these days I can get fresh, organic salads that are pre-made. I pick-up a big blister-pack filled with a mix of local lettuces and then just add cucumbers and/or tomatoes along with a sprinkling of some type of protein – either chicken with garlic or black beans.

I don’t do any sauces. OK, you salad people call them dressings, but they’re really sauces. The waitress at the wings place never asks what kind of dressing you want on your chicken wings. No, that shit is a sauce. And some of the ones that people put on their salads are far worse for you than the shit we put on our wings.

I have come to actually enjoy these salads I make. It’s not quite the same as eating something like buffalo chicken wings, especially if you are watching a soccer game or something on TV.

But I’ve discovered a little trick that makes me almost look forward to eating a salad: don’t use your hands. That’s right, not only aren’t you allowed to use utensils, but you can’t even use your hands to eat the salad.

This stems from one of the favorite things my brother and I used to do when we were living together right out of college. We started a tradition called No-Hands Night. We’d typically serve a bowl of ravioli and a bowl of beer, with a tarp underneath the table. No hands allowed. You just had to bury your face in the bowls and eat and drink like an animal. Great fun.

Well, obviously we’re not doing much of that anymore. But I find taking the same tact with a salad can be a lot more fun than simply eating it like a civilized person. Plus, I don’t even need to lay down a tarp.

So give it a try the next time you have a salad. And should you ever want to resurrect the full-on traditional no-hands night, let me offer you two tips for that. First, don’t make the pasta too hot, as you’ll burn your face. Second, pour the beer into a glass first, to release some of the carbonation before pouring it into a bowl. That way the bubbles won’t burn your nostrils. And, yeah, don’t try any of this if you have a runny knows.

Bon appétit!