The East Village’s Sorbillo is the first overseas branch of a well-regarded Naples pizzeria, opened late last November on Bowery. It’s helmed by Gino Sorbillo, as famous for his campaign against organized crime as for his pizza. He has gladly donned the mantle of celebrity chef and sashayed into the East Village wearing it for a few days before departing and leaving his brother Toto in charge. After a brief tenure and a few photo opps, Toto left too.
Still, even after their departure, a reminder of Sorbillo’s Italian celebrity remains in the East Village space. The expansive, well-lit interior has graphic texts in Italian along the walls, including a stenciled slogan “La Pizza Fa Miracoli” (or “pizza makes miracles”). Near the rear of the room, portraits of a bespectacled Sorbillo stare down from the walls like Big Brother. As for the supposedly celebrity-level pizzas, sure, you can get a great pie at Sorbillo — but only if you stick to the cheaper ones.
Flying from the wood-burning beehive oven at the end of the room, the pizzas are of the classic Naples variety. Large enough to satisfy one person, they sport an airy, bulbous crust speckled with spots of char, and a fine texture that results from the imported flour used. The lower-cost pies revel in this simplicity, using mainly canned San Marzano tomatoes, domestic and imported mozzarella, and a drizzle of flavorful olive oil. Consistent with the genre, these pies are limp and damp in the middle, so you may have to pick up a knife and fork to eat them.
Pizzas like the antica margherita ($17) are spectacular in their nuanced blandness. (Better not to think about the price of a similar pie in Naples, which is often less than half.) The vecchia Roma ($18), also worth the money, boasts shavings of uncured guanciale (hog jowl) in addition to Rome’s signature cheese, pecorino, which gives the pie a salty savor.
This is brilliant pizza formulation, on a menu that confers themes inspired by Italian regions on most of its 15 pies. My favorite of all, Nduja ($22) is associated with Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot. Across its surface lie little splotches of liquid salami, with rings of purple onion strewn around like hula hoops. The calzone’s worth ordering too, a Neapolitan specialty that wraps the same dough around a filling of ricotta, mozzarella, and salami, propelled by black pepper, making a meal of incredible richness.
But some of the more expensive pies are terrible. One evening, a friend and I tested pizzas topped with porcini mushrooms and black truffles (the Firenze and the Alba, respectively priced at $30 and $35). The mushrooms were sodden and slippery, and the truffles lumpy with no delicacy of flavor; both tasted canned. Heck, if you have a fresh truffle, it’s not a bad idea to put it on a cheese pizza, but you must shave it on at the last minute.
The three Sorbillo branches in Naples mainly offer pizzas with a handful of starters, but when the idea of a New York branch was being hatched, someone had the bright idea that the place should be a full-blown Italian restaurant, too. This was a big mistake, leading the pizzas to almost seem like an afterthought on a tediously long menu. Let’s visit the other sections one by one.
First, there are the pastas, which tend to taste like something thrown together from leftovers. Pasta e piselli ($19) features tubettini, like stunted rigatoni, tossed with peas and bacon, but deriving little smoky benefit from the bacon. And the peas taste exceedingly tired. Nobody told the recipe developer that Americans don’t much like small, stale peas in their pasta.
Similarly, the gnocchi alla Sorrentina, named after a town on a peninsula south of Naples that extends toward the Isle of Capri, are mushy and dull tasting. Worst of all is Genovese — big pasta tubes called paccheri in an oniony sludge too sweet by a mile, nothing like what the menu’s descriptor of “ragu” suggests. Why even put them on the menu; who expects pizzaioli to make good pasta, anyway?
Not surprisingly, the apps mainly fail as well, including an adamantine version of fried calamari bested by nearly every bar in town, and salads that are mainly a heap of dry arugula and a few tomatoes that arrive entirely undressed. Yes, good olive oil and a so-so bottle of balsamic appear on the side, but really this is just the beginning of an acceptable dressing.
Then there’s a starter that consists of an unadorned lump of mozzarella and a pile of flavorless mushrooms without as much as a shake of salt. Overpriced at $21, it was as if someone proclaimed, “Dig up some apps that won’t take us a bit of trouble to make and charge plenty for them.”
But among the meat and contorni sections are at least a couple of gems. In the latter category, the sautéed escarole accented with black olives and capers is the soul of southern Italian cooking, and the same vegetable served with grilled sausage is similarly delicious, though at $21 for a single split sausage, it doesn’t really reflect the generosity and abundance of the cuisine.
At Sorbillo Pizzeria, one is wise to stick with the cheaper pizzas.