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Italy’s Most Famous Pizzamaker Takes on NYC

He fought the mob and turned around a neighborhood

Though he's unknown to most Americans, Gino Sorbillo is one of the most famous pizzaioli in Italy, with regular guest appearances on MasterChef Italia, three restaurants in Naples, and a reputation for having fought the mafia — beating back crime in Centro Storico, the neighborhood that’s home to his flagship pizzeria. Here in New York, Sorbillo will open the first overseas outpost of his namesake pizzeria in October at 334 Bowery, following his low-key, fast-casual calzone spot Zia Esterina that opened in Little Italy over the summer.

Inside his pizzeria on Via dei Tribunali, the lean Sorbillo, who looks much younger than his 43 years, works in an open kitchen as adoring customers gawk from their seats. Women jostle nearby for a chance at a selfie and, if they’re lucky, the European double-cheek kiss. Outside, fans wait for up to two hours on the narrow cobblestone street for a table. The pizza is that good, a showcase of light-as-air crust topped with local ingredients.

His mastery of marketing is also on display: The crowd outside begins forming as a civilized line before the pizzeria even opens at noon, but quickly devolves into a sea of traffic-obstructing humanity that continues until midnight, when the last of the 1200 pizzas the restaurant serves daily come out of the oven.

This was not always the scene in Centro Storico. Long reputed to be a dangerous neighborhood overrun by criminal activity, the evolution of the historic center of Naples into a tourist destination is largely the work of one person: Gino Sorbillo.

The line stretches to the corner before noon.
Sorbillo in Naples
At night, Via dei Tribunali is blocked by the masses waiting for pizza.
Gary He
Scarfing down pizza outside the restaurant.

The Mafia’s Stronghold on Naples

“This area is now a tourist neighborhood, 365 days a year,” said Pasquale Pizzo, the patriarch of the family that owns the Voglia di Graffa snack shop across the street from Sorbillo’s pizzeria. “But in the 90s and early 2000s there was a lot of crime. There was a robbery every day.”

The formerly crime-ridden neighborhood in the city center was run by drug-dealing gangs associated with the Camorra, an umbrella term used to refer to the mafia organizations based in the Campania region of Italy, of which Naples is the capital. Unlike the pyramid structure of the Cosa Nostra in Sicily or the ‘Ndrangheta of the Calabria region, the Camorra consists of loosely associated clans that run their individual territories.

While Campania’s mafia organizations are known for their narcotics stronghold in the Scampia neighborhood — considered one of the largest open-air drug markets in Europe — the various clans have their tentacles in almost every industry, including agriculture, real estate, fashion, waste management, and government. The Camorra’s reach is so extensive that most locals have accepted mafia influence as a way of life and refer to it as “o’ sistema”— the system.

The Vele buildings in the Scampia neighborhood of Naples, where the Comorra runs one of the largest narcotics markets in Europe.

“The mafia is very rich because what it earns is not governed by the normal balance between supply and demand. It’s a sort of inelastic demand which is dictated by the use of violence and corruption,” says Alessio Postiglione, an Italian journalist who has investigated the Camorra during a career that has spanned two decades. The latest book he co-authored, Sahara: The Desert of Mafia and Jihad, documents the connections between Italian crime syndicates and Islamic terrorist groups.

In the world of food, the Camorra controls hundreds of millions of dollars worth of production a year. The Casalesi clan in particular makes buffalo mozzarella using imported curd from Romania, Germany, and Austria, then is said to slap a premium Italian DOP label on it. Mozzarella produced with spoiled milk will be treated with caustic soda to eliminate the stink and then sold as a high quality product. Even many of the highly touted San Marzano tomato producers are suspect, as the agricultural region accounts for over 90 percent of Italy’s import of Chinese tomato concentrate, which is then re-packaged and exported as an Italian product.

“The law is in favor of the criminality. The trafficking of spoiled or counterfeited food is much less risky than other illegal businesses,” says Luca Ponzi, one of the authors of Cibo Criminale (Criminal Food), which documents mafia control and corruption of food supply. “Almost no one goes to jail for a fake Parmigiano Reggiano, as it happens when trafficking weapons or drugs. And the revenues are more or less the same.”

Locally, the Camorra is said to impose a “pizzo,” a mafia protection fee of sorts, over businesses within its sphere of influence. For a restaurant or pizzeria, this racketeering may translate to actual cash payments, but more often it means buying the sub-par tomatoes, mozzarella, wheat, and coffee from Camorra-connected producers, or using mafia-controlled services like waste management.

“The mafia does not perceive itself as a mob of criminals. It perceives itself as a sort of Robin Hood, a mob protecting the poor from liberal capitalism,” says Postiglione. “Undoubtedly people pay mafia taxes because if they don’t do it, their economic activity may be burnt.... by bombs, and things like that.”

Sorbillo may very well be familiar with the consequences of crossing the mafia: In April 2012, a fire tore through his flagship pizzeria. The Camorra was suspected of setting the blaze; businesses from the neighborhood and fans from around the city rallied to the restaurant in support.

A wall spray-painted with the number 17 for the murdered leader of the Paranza dei Bambini.

“To me, it’s still an unsolved case,” says Sorbillo, who notes that the fire started at the doorway, not in the kitchen of the pizzeria. Of course, these sorts of “accidents” happen all the time in Naples: Like that time earlier this year when two hooded men rode up on a motorcycle to Pasticceria Poppella, a popular pastry shop that’s been open for almost a century in the nearby Sanità neighborhood, and sprayed the storefront with bullets.

Unlike Via dei Tribunali where Sorbillo’s pizzeria resides, the pastry shop’s Sanità neighborhood and many others are still subject to pressure from the Camorra. Just days after this article was written, two suspected members of the Camorra from the nearby Forcella area were executed in the middle of the day. Further north are Secondigliano and Scampia, neighborhoods made famous by Roberto Saviano’s book Gomorrah. These are the Camorra’s bases of power, where the police will make a cursory bust once a year for media cameras but otherwise leave the drug pushers to go about their business. With the exception of upper class residential neighborhoods like Posillipo, the clans extend their influence across most of the region.

A Day in the Life

When his wife and kids are out of town, Gino Sorbillo doesn’t always sleep at home: He stays at the Casa della Pizza — “House of Pizza” — an office located on the second floor of a building several doors down from his pizzeria.

During the day, it is his escape from the lunacy of Via dei Tribunali, from the adoring fans, from the appreciative but nosy neighbors, and from the watchful eye of any shady characters that still linger in the neighborhood. The area may have improved since the 90s, sure, but the narrow streets near the pizzeria are still spray-painted with the number 17 — for the seventeenth letter in the Italian alphabet, S. For Emanuele Sibillo, the murdered leader of the so-called Paranza dei Bambini, a gang of teenagers as young as 12 that impose the Camorra’s will on the streets of Centro Storico.

Sorbillo eats breakfast.

None of that matters inside his apartment, where he plays songs by Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Shelves and desks are stocked with memorabilia from Sorbillo’s career and items from before his time in the industry: Books filled with vintage tomato can labels, advertisements for olive oil and mozzarella, and travel brochures for trips to Naples.

To stand in his apartment is to be inside Sorbillo’s brain, which has been shaped by a lifetime of pizza-making and a romanticized version of his Naples.

Sorbillo’s daily quest to change the image of his hometown starts at 8 a.m. with two containers of yogurt and sfogliatella from the bakery across the street. His phone goes off with the ringtone of ducks quacking, but there is a task more important than fielding requests from his staff: managing his social media presence, which he does himself.

Sorbillo at his desk in his apartment.

“Many journalists told me that I was the first pizzaiolo on social media,” said Sorbillo, who started posting on Facebook in 2008 and added other services to his repertoire as they became popular. Social media is so important to Sorbillo that the restaurant’s plates are emblazoned with the logos of every service for which he has an account: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and YouTube.

No doubt an online presence been great for promoting the brand — as crowds attest — but by engaging with customers and publicizing the life of a pizzaiolo, Sorbillo has helped elevate a humble gig to celebrity status, which is especially good for Sorbillo in that it makes him an impractical target for the Camorra.

“Sorbillo is too big to be harassed by small street mafia,” says Postigliano. “He’s too much of a brand.”

On the surface, Sorbillo’s brand is to promote the best of Naples. But to do that, he understands that he must also fight the worst of the city: the Camorra infiltration of virtually every industry and the fear it spreads through the city’s neighborhoods. To that end, Sorbillo participates in anti-racketeering programs, and hosts summits in his apartment for law enforcement officials, partially as a show of force against the mafia. This isn’t new for Sorbillo: He’s been fighting the Camorra since he was a teenager.

Sorbillo’s ID from when he was a member of Italy’s militarized police force, the Carabinieri.

How He Got Here

A young Sorbillo living in one of the worst neighborhoods in one of the most crime-ridden cities in Italy, rejected the Camorra as a kid, so much so that by the time he was 18, in 1994, he joined the Carabinieri, Italy’s elite militarized police force.

Like all recruits, his family was screened for Camorra connections going back three generations. Carabinieri aren’t allowed to work in their home districts, either, so Sorbillo was shipped off to Rome as an armed undercover protecting the likes of supermodel Cindy Crawford, Fiat scion Giovanni Agnielli, and Pope John Paul II. He banked most of his monthly 600€ salary for a real estate investment that he had long dreamed of: an abandoned lighting fixture shop down the street from where he grew up.

After a year in Rome, Sorbillo went back to Naples, purchased the abandoned building, and built the fourth pizzeria on Via dei Tribunali, determined to break the Camorra’s grip on his neighborhood, through pizza.

“I fought for the good of the city, for a new Neapolitan renaissance,” says Sorbillo. It was a grind through the first couple of years, but soon word spread through the region of a talented young pizzaiolo who was eschewing mafia-connected producers, whose products are often tainted with dioxins and other quality control issues.

“I worked every day. It could be raining, or Vesuvius could erupt, and I would be working,” said Sorbillo of the early days. “And every day I would have customers waiting for me.”

Sorbillo’s team cranks out five pizzas at a time, with each one taking three minutes from opening the dough to pulling it out of the oven.

There are now 16 pizzerias on Via dei Tribunali, likely the highest concentration on any one kilometer stretch in the world, in addition to the several trattorias that have opened nearby. Many of these businesses exist only to siphon off customers that grow tired of waiting over an hour at Sorbillo’s pizzeria. They don’t seem to have much luck.

“There’s so many people waiting here, so you can sometimes get them to come eat at the trattoria instead,” said Martina Casella, who along with her twin sister Silvia post up in front of Sorbillo’s pizzeria on a daily basis and hand out flyers for the nearby Osteria Atri. “But often people say, ‘No thank you, I want to wait two hours.’”

“People love to wait,” says Casella as she rolled her eyes.

Paolo Georgetti and Valentina Mengarelli from Firmo, Italy, didn’t wait at all: They ordered two pies to go and vacuumed them up on the street right outside. It was their first time at the pizzeria, on the recommendation of a friend.

“This was the best pizza that I’ve ever had,” said Mengarelli. “I didn’t expect the pizza to be so good. I forgot to Instagram it.”

Sorbillo eventually convinced other business owners, like Mario Avallone of La Stanza del Gusto, to move their restaurants to the area, further bolstering commercial activity. The tourist crowds eventually brought increased police presence.

Sorbillo talks with chef Mario Avallone and blogger Fiorella Breglia at Avallone’s La Stanza del Gusto.

“Security has greatly improved,” says Rino Notta, the manager of a wine shop and liquor store next door to Sorbillo’s that opened in 1997. Guests often drink at the shop’s bar while in line for a table. “After Gino started the pizzeria, this area became one of the best to do business. We started our aperitivo service specifically for people who were waiting for Gino.”

“Gino was the light for the entire area,” says Alessandra Clemente, whose mother was killed in Camorra crossfire when she was a child. Clemente now runs the Council for Youth, Creativity, and Innovation under the Mayor’s Office, and is tasked with administering programs that promote and improve Naples.

One such program offers marketing support and local tax relief to businesses that denounce the Camorra and declare themselves “racket-free,” which means they don’t participate in pizzo. Over a thousand businesses have signed up. It’s a start in what has been a long battle against the mafia’s influence over Naples.

“The city understands now that there’s another way,” says Clemente. “There isn’t just the Camorra.”

Alessandra Clemente was a child when her mother was gunned down by Comorra crossfire. Now she runs the Council for Youth, Creativity, and Innovation under the Mayor’s Office.
Sorbillo on the balcony of his apartment.

The New York Chapter

Sorbillo stood on the balcony of his apartment, surveying the neighborhood that many give him credit for rescuing and building into a tourist destination. “This is my world,” Sorbillo says. “My future will be in Naples. I need Naples.”

But at the center of his desk, among all the memorabilia and magazine clippings, is a miniature reproduction of the Statue of Liberty, a souvenir from his first visit to New York two years ago. The first Sorbillo Pizzeria outside of Italy will open on the Bowery, a short walk from Little Italy, but strategically located between the starving hordes of students attending New York University and Cooper Union. If it’s anything like his flagship pizzeria in Naples, expect pizzas 10- to 12-inches across priced around $10.

“New York has been a dream of mine from the beginning,” says Sorbillo. “I see a connection between the Centro Storico of Naples and the streets of New York. There’s life on the streets. Everything you see here, you see in New York.”

Sorbillo bought his Statue of Liberty souvenir on his first trip to New York two years ago.

Crime is no longer a menace on the Lower East Side or Bowery in particular. And while the Italian immigrant community is strong, Sorbillo may be surprised to discover that Little Italy is rapidly being swallowed by Chinatown. But neither crime fighting nor catering specifically to the city’s Italians is Sorbillo’s main goal for opening in Manhattan.

“The pizza of Via dei Tribunali is the people’s pizza,” says Sorbillo. “Pizza is supposed to be very easy with few ingredients. We’re supposed to have fun and to eat. I want to bring that to New York.”

Graffiti that translates to “The Camorra is shit.” Many Neapolitans now see a path that does not involve working with the mafia.

Special thanks to Dario Volpe and Adriano Sacca in Naples for translation and guidance as well as Melissa McCart for edits.

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