What I learned about eating from Sorbillo NYC

For the purposes of this article, it will be necessary to allow this writer to have a sentimental moment. 

At the age of 20, I moved to Bordeaux, France and lived in an apartment on the Cours de la Martinique with a ragtag assortment of louche, elegant French students and every Saturday night we would host a party. My first Sunday living there, I was introduced to their version of a hangover remedy: a visit to the riverside Marché des Chartrons for a cold glass of white wine and a dozen fresh oysters, brought in from the Arcachon bay that morning. I had never eaten an oyster before and the shock I experienced as the glistening, salty mollusc slipped down my throat, mingling with the earthy notes of the Entre-Deux-Mers did manage to successfully cure me of last night’s vodka overdose. Ever since then, I have adored oysters. 

Would I have become an instant fan if I had first sampled them, say, in a restaurant in a grimy city far from the sea? I am convinced that I would not. 

The idea that I am attempting to express here is that the way in which we enjoy food is heavily influenced by external circumstances: the surroundings, the company, our mood. We are more likely to engage with what we eat and therefore enjoy it more if we do so within a unique, special moment. We may not be more inclined to like it, but the good memory that surrounds it can be powerful enough to leave a serious imprint on our personality. 

All of this is simply a terribly long-winded way of advising you not to get too excited about eating in the NYC branch of legendary Neapolitan pizzeria Sorbillo. 

When we travel, we often cite experiencing the local food as one of our top reasons to visit a particular place. Our increasingly globalised world, for all its wonders, cannot fully replicate the sensation of eating a pastel de nata in Lisbon, drinking a glass of bubbles in Champagne and, as Sorbillo’s NYC teaches us, eating a slice of pizza napoletana in Naples.

I have eaten a pizza from Gino Sorbillo’s pizzeria on the Via dei Tribunali in Naples. Two friends and I got a ripieno aperto to take away and ate it on the street outside next to a stone fountain. I remember every bite and will forever assert that it was the best pizza I have had in my entire life, as will my two friends. We had spent the past 48 hours sampling pizzas across the city and were pleased to discover that the most legendary one lived up to the hype. How much of our enjoyment came from the taste of the pizza itself and how much of it came from eating it on a hot summer night in Naples, surrounded by the shouts of the inhabitants of the working class neighbourhood after having waited a good 30 minutes in line? I couldn’t possibly say. What I do know is that eating the same pizza in the new West Village location of Sorbillo provoked in me a crashing wave of sorrow-filled nostalgia. 

Don’t get me wrong, the pizza is excellent. They serve Neapolitan-style pies with that characteristic soft dough and fluffy, chewy crust, San Marzano canned tomatoes and creamy mozzarella. The Margherita is delicious and other standout options include the Nduja pizza and the vecchia Roma with guanciale and pecorino. However, the concept of the restaurant falls flat, a fact that becomes evident even to those who haven’t visited its Italian counterpart, due to its bright white walls covered with Italian quotes in garish blue lettering. In addition, someone had the terrible idea of offering food other than pizza, all of which is best to be avoided in order to save more disappointment. On the other hand, the wine selection is a pleasant surprise, a fact that serves to solidify this restaurant as a great place to grab a much-better-than-average pizza and a good bottle of red. But as for being on a par with New York pizza greats like Lucali’s and Di Fara’s, in the words of Neapolitan descendant Tony Soprano, forget about it. 

A visit to Sorbillo’s does not, unfortunately, allow for the recreation of one of the culinary highlights from a weekend in Naples. If you approach a pizza here (as this writer did) with that foolish attitude, you are sure to be left only with a sensation of dissatisfaction and a reminder of the old saying: you can have your pizza but you can’t eat it too.

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