This review was written by Jake:
It’s quarter to seven, and I’m standing outside Pizzeria Sorbillo, staring at a framed cutout of Bill De Blasio posing with a folded pizza the size of a pocketbook. He’s got one corner in his mouth, and I wonder how many times they took the picture—how many times Bill had to hold the pizza to his mouth and smile before he was actually allowed to eat it. I know the feeling. We’ve been waiting since five-thirty, and after flying half-way around the world, the last hour—like Bill’s photo shoot, I’m sure—has felt a bit like a prolonged first bite.
Through the glass door I can see the waiter is nearly finished sweeping and can’t help but notice the floor’s no cleaner in spite of his efforts. I watch him sweep out the last corner, pushing everything toward the center of the restaurant as another waiter appears with a rag and squirt bottle and starts wiping tables. It’s dark inside. The only light—other than that filtering in off the street—comes from a handful of rusty-looking pendant lamps, which seem incongruously medieval alongside the baby blue walls and display cases full of “old Italy” pizza memorabilia.
There are about a dozen square tables on either side of the dining room, each fitted with mismatched chairs and topped with silverware bundles. I’m reminded of a lot of restaurants in the states—neighborhood mainstays that haven’t updated their décor since the 80’s but don’t need to because the food’s so good you’d come back even if they shutoff the electricity and stopped cleaning the bathrooms. There are no frills at Pizzeria Sorbillo, but that’s fine. Good food tastes just as good in a wicker chair as it does in some cologne-scented bistro.
I check my phone and see that only four minutes have elapsed. Then I look at Molly, and she smiles and bounces on her toes and asks how much longer, and I tell her ten minutes. She’s so giddy I’m almost concerned. Of all the things she planned for our Italy trip, this is by far her most anticipated. She loves pizza like a kid that won’t eat anything else, with the same deep, boundless passion you’d expect to find around the table at a Chuck-E-Cheese birthday party. And here we are in Naples—the birthplace of pizza—outside Gino Sorbillo’s—possibly the best pizza in Naples, maybe the world. It’s a big deal.
After all, if anyone understands Molly’s feelings for pizza, it’s the Neapolitans. They even have their own pizza association—the Association Vercace Pizza Napolentana (AVPN)—entirely dedicated to the protection and preservation of “true” Neapolitan pizza. A pizza association. This is the kind of thing I’d jokingly encourage Molly to start up back home. Her own pizza association—like a book club, only with pizza, where she could discuss toppings and fraternize with like-minded individuals. But the AVPN is no joke. I’ve read about it in months prior. It’s a non-profit, quality assurance organization. Participating restaurants must abide strict rules regarding the preparation and sourcing of ingredients, covering everything from the tomatoes used in the sauce—San Marzano tomatoes grown in the volcanic plains south of Mt. Vesuvius—to the cooking time and temperature—60-90 seconds in a 800-900 degree Fahrenheit, wood-fire oven—and even the required size and thickness of the dough—no more than one third of a centimeter at the middle and thirty-five in diameter. The idea being, if a restaurant is VPN certified and they follow the rules (Pizzeria Sorbillo is and does), the very worst their pizza can be is good.
Feet away, mopeds whiz past on the cobblestone street. I watch them weave through the crowds of pedestrians, their engines wining shrilly. They are everywhere in Italy, and I hate them—a rare case where good for the planet is bad for humanity. Thankfully, we haven’t witnessed a crash yet, just a few close calls. Italians must make good fighter pilots.
I hear a click and turn to see a waiter unlocking the vestibule doors. He props them open with two brick doorstops. A considerable line’s built up behind us. Immediately everyone starts inching forward—happy to edge out anyone momentarily out of place—as the waiters scramble inside, making last-minute preparations. Molly turns back and gives me an excited look.
It’s a free-for-all to get in. I push my way through and grab a table near the front. The waiters make the rounds, dropping off menus, taking drink orders. We get a bottle of “gas water” (seltzer), and order our pizzas while we’re at it. There are quite a few on the menu—ones with arugula and cured meats, ones with mushrooms and onions—but we stick with the basics and order two “true” Neapolitan margherita pizzas. The waiter doesn’t speak much English, and we don’t speak much Italian, so the transaction is brief with a lot of pointing.
Ninety seconds later (as per the AVPN), the pizzas arrive. They’re still steaming—the mozzarella all melted and simmering in the sauce. The crust is bubbled and charred—but not burnt—and I can smell the tomatoes and sweet basil.
The pizzas are unsliced. Unlike the rest of the world, Neapolitans eat their pizza with a fork and knife. A quick look around confirms this—aside from one guy who’s attempting the De Blasio method with somewhat limited results.
I slash off a piece near the edge. The crust is crisp and chewy, and I can taste the smoke from the wood fire. Then I cut out a round from the center, where the mozzarella, sauce, and olive oil are all melted into a plasma, and if I’m not quite as happy as Molly, I’m close. Every once in a while you eat something that alters your perception of how good food can taste, something that captures the essence of why us humans bother with the culinary arts in the first place. It’s like that. And I’m suddenly thankful for the AVPN and all its rules and strictures, because what an awful shame it would be if, in this pizza-crazed world, we forgot where it came from and what it used to taste like.
When the waiter drops off the tab, I take it to the register. There’s an old man behind the counter. He’s sitting on a wooden stool, reading something. He takes my tab without looking and punches a few buttons on the register. The entire meal’s about fifteen Euros—less than twenty bucks—and probably the best food I’ve ever had, dollar for dollar. With what they’re selling, Pizzeria Sorbillo might be the most underpriced restaurant in the world.
Back at the table, Molly’s plate’s lined with a halo of crust, and she’s tearing off pieces, mopping up the remnants of sauce and cheese. She offers me a piece, and I take it. As she finishes her last bites, I’m reminded what joy looks like.
Walking out, I notice another framed cutout on the wall. This one’s of Pope Francis with his hand raised, apparently doing something holy to a pizza, or maybe it’s the other way around. I can’t tell.