Naples's Best Pizza Maker Is Loved and Hated for Good Reason
Gino Sorbillo is considered Naples's best Neopolitan pizza maker, but between run-ins with the local mafia, a restaurant fire, and an influx of tourism, his road to success hasn't been easy.
Surrounded by crumbling buildings where laundry hangs from balconies and men look out from windows while busy smoking cigarettes, Via dei Tribunali is a long road in one of Naples' historic working-class neighborhoods.
Number 32 on this street is home to La Pizzeria Sorbillo, Naples's best and most famous pizza hub. Pizza-master Gino Sorbillo has garnered a long list of awards (his most recent accolade comes from the championship of Neapolitan Pizza). When he's not flipping pies, Sorbillo is traveling around the world making appearances on cooking shows, explaining his ethos on perfecting Neapolitan pizza. In 2013, his restaurant received the award for best pizza restaurant by Gambero Rosso, Italy's most prominent food guide. Sorbillo is considered the foremost pizza maker responsible for changing the perception of the pizzaiolo from a second-rate cook into a deeply-respected position and has managed to elevate pizza into a highly-respected cuisine.
In Naples, everyone knows Gino Sorbillo. And if they don't love him, they love to hate him.
The success of his restaurant and the number of people it attracts have been great catalysts for the neighborhood's rebirth. Sorbillo has brought thousands of tourists to the neighborhood and employs over seventy people. This renewed interest in the area has also prompted other shops to open along Via dei Tribunali to serve the growing influx. Just outside the pizzeria's main entrance, a large photo of New York City mayor Bill De Blasio eating a slice of Sorbillo's pizza and an article claiming that Pope Francis blessed Sorbillo's pizza provide subtle notoriety for the eatery.
A woman from the neighborhood tells me that the restaurant was burned down by the Camorra a little over three years ago. The reason, she says, is that Gino refused to pay the pizzo, the percentage that organized crime asks businesses operating in "their" area to pay to be "protected." With Sorbillo's refusal, the restaurant burned down. But instead of giving up three days after the accident, Sorbillo turned on the oven, cleaned up the space, placed chairs and tables outside, as served clients as if nothing had happened.
I arrive at Sorbillo's around 1 PM to find a large, hungry crowd waiting for a table right in front of the one-window entrance. Inside, the pizzeria is dark and welcoming. Waiters move quickly with silver platters of boiling pizza in their hands. The pizza master, Gino—as everyone in the restaurant refers to him with affection—will be right with me.
Clean-shaven, wearing an impeccable white chef uniform, he looks relaxed yet busy. We start from the basics. "Sono figlio d'arte," he tells me using a Neapolitan expression literally meaning "son of art."
Gino's father was number nineteen of 21 siblings who were all pizza-makers, along with mom and dad. Glancing at this menu, one can spot their influences. Each pizza is named after one of Gino's siblings and various family members, from Ciro, one of his uncles, to Esterina, Gino's beloved aunt.
"There is no real secret to Neapolitan pizza" Gino tells me. For him, it's all about keeping it as simple as possible while respecting a few rules, nothing more. "And I must be honest. I really can't stand those people that make it really complicated because it's usually bullshit," he tells me.
Making pizza should be simple, but more than anything, quick. The cooking time of a Neapolitan pizza is never more than two minutes, and the same goes for the preparation. The basic ingredients are always the same and are verified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an organization that seeks to preserve the authenticity of the Neapolitan pizza around the globe. I smile as I hear about their mission, but quickly realize just how serious they are.
Paolo Surace, the organization's coordinator, tells me that American and German companies had approached them a few years back to buy the brand in order to put it on frozen pizza packaging, but the association refused. "We don't do it for profit," Lello Surace, Paolo's father and the association's Vice President, tells me. "We do it because we love Neapolitan pizza, we want to preserve its integrity, and let as many people as possible know about it." Later on during our conversation, Sorbillo fills me in on his rules for how to cook a quality Neapolitan pizza:
- San Marzano tomatoes
- Extra virgin olive oil
- A temperature of 450° F degrees on the oven's dome. This means about 350° F on the oven floor
- All ingredients are cooked inside the oven, and very few are added thereafter
- Brewer's yeast
- The dough has to rise somewhere between 8 and 12 hours
He also gave a few hints on how to recognize when it's done:
- Put your finger on the crust and press downwards. If the crust levitates right up then its good to go
- Take a peek inside the crust. If it's empty, then it's a good sign
- Look at the mozzarella. If it's completely melted, that's not a good sign
- Look under the pizza. If there is too much black, it means the dough was made with too much flour
As I speak with Gino, people stop at the table to say hello every minute. Traditionally, Neapolitan pizza is served in two styles: the margherita ("Napoli") and the marinara (tomato and garlic), but Sorbillo's pizza selection goes well beyond these choices, changing his menu every three months. "There is a lot of this city in my pizzas," he tells me with a smile. "The children playing soccer, the violence of organized crime, and the great moments of humanity Naples has to offer at every corner. I change the ingredients all the time and make different combinations that very few others do, like yellow tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella."
Sorbillo's latest addition to the menu is the Tarallucci pizza, a total mockery of what Gino considers a terrible Neapolitan habit: going to the beach with a bottle of beer and endless bags of taralli. You're doing it all wrong if you don't leave crumbs everywhere. "It's aesthetically unpleasing, so I decided to create a pizza to show how it's possible to eat the same things in a much nicer environment," he tells me.
Gino then points to the buffalo pizza on the menu. He notes how the mozzarella comes from the Don Peppe Diana cooperative, an organization that farms on land once ruled by the mafia that is now dedicated to the memory of Peppe Diana, a priest who was killed by organized crime in Casal di Principe, a town not far from the outskirts of Naples. Sorbillo was also the guest of honor at the opening of NCO, an organization that fights the Casalesi clan through its actions and has also opened a pizzeria inside the villa of a former Mafioso.
In December, Sorbillo will be opening another restaurant in New York City to try and replicate his Neapolitan success overseas. Hopefully, there will soon be no need to go to Naples to try the best pizza from the city that gave birth to it.