On our inspiration trip to southern Italy, pizza was everywhere. Gino Sorbillo is thé icon of Italian pizza, or should I say Neapolitan pizza, because that’s the place where the pizza story all began. While we were there we didn’t want to miss out on trying a new rising star of the food world, the pizza fritta, before it starts making waves across the rest of Europe. We talked to Gino about his family, his passion for Naples and pizza.
La Famiglia Sorbillo
Sorbillo is a household name in Naples. It’s come to be a synonym for pizza. The family history is a story of poverty, hope, perseverance, tradition and innovation – and Gino’s the best person to tell it:
"My family didn’t just become famous for its pizzas, but also because we brought a lot of children into the world.My grandparents were really well-known because they had 21 children, all of whom became pizza chefs.My father was the 19th and my aunt, Esterina Sorbillo, was the first.Pizza helped them get out of this special, yet quite difficult and dangerous neighbourhood of Naples. This taught me an important lesson; even a simple but at the same time difficult speciality such as making pizzas can give you a bright future."
So it didn’t come as much of a surprise when Gino Sorbillo followed in his father’s, uncles’ and aunts’ footsteps. When he was younger Gino started out his professional life in Corsica and London, but the lure of his home town was too strong.
"I didn’t want to do what most of my family had done, which was leave Naples. Since the mid-90s I wanted to stay here, to work on my pizza. To me, that seemed like the best thing I could do to contribute to Neapolitan pizza, which is also part of my family and part of the history of Naples. My story is a story of courage, of a real Neapolitan who left at first but then wanted to stay, despite job offers in other cities in Italy and abroad."
Gino has a very clear idea about what it means to be a restaurant owner:
"I have shown that it was, and is, important to work at your own establishment. But you also have to be able to look beyond your business, to your surroundings, to convey an important message to others in society. A message of transparency, energy, determination, courage, innovation, but always respectful. All of this forms part of my story, the story of Gino Sorbillo."
Besides being a famous pizza chef, Gino is also a full-time marketing machine. He’s a permanent judge on MasterChef Italy and is a popular guest on other TV shows. When we arrive, there’s a long queue in front of his restaurant. They especially want to try to the pizza margherita, as well as the other speciality – the pizza fritta. When Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana celebrated the 30th anniversary of their fashion label, they went to Naples and even popped into Gino’s restaurant for pizza.
But the most important thing is and always will be the flavour of his pizza. It was no coincidence that his restaurant Sorbillo was named Best Pizza Restaurant in 2013 by Il Gambero Rosso, the leading culinary magazine in Italy. Sorbillo succeeds in keeping the Neapolitan pizza trendy while respecting tradition at the same time. In his view, there is a difference between the Neapolitan pizza and the pizza we’re familiar with, the ‘European’ pizza:
"When people eat Neapolitan pizza they can taste all the feelings and emotions that went into making it. A well-prepared Neapolitan pizza constantly demands attention. There is nothing easy about it. It requires emotion, you have to be on hand all the time – even when the dough is rising. It’s a pizza with soul."
Will power and passion
His life story reads like a childhood dream for all pizza chefs. Born and raised in a family and city where pizza is king (along with football); the perfect setting for a successful pizza chef in the making. But for him it’s not so much about where you’re born, it’s more about will power and your passion to make the most delicious pizza. Whatever your cultural influences are:
"Anyone who has the will power and is prepared to make sacrifices, can make pizza, even if you’re 40 or 50. If you’ve been born into that environment then it might be a little easier; you’ve soaked up that atmosphere, seen how things should be done, but at the end of the day it all depends on you and your attitude. Let’s hope that those new cultures who try to add their own twist on the Neapolitan pizza or other pizzas succeed so that the whole world can continue to enjoy delicious pizza."
From childhood home to food lab
Full of expectation, we walk into the nirvana of pizza baking. We’ve been invited to Gino’s grandmother’s home, where he also lived... above the pizzeria. Today, it’s been transformed into a small museum. There’s even a development lab, where Gino tries out new recipes. Sorbillo cooperates with famous beer brewers and grain producers to create his world-class pizzas, which are the result of continuous research into the best and freshest ingredients. These are easy to find due to the limited number of ingredients. Less is more, even when it comes to pizza:
"We work a lot with fresh produce. Every day we work with ingredients that have to be used by that evening, so we don’t stick to a weekly schedule. We also work with some other really great people, men and women who are doing the same thing as us. And then it comes down to the commitment of the restaurant owner and pizza chef to offering a healthy product.'
It happens quite often. At the start, a dish becomes popular in a European country but the export is confined to the neighbouring countries. Then suddenly, Americans see it and think: "Yeah, that’s what we need." In this case they discovered ‘fried pizza‘ and said: "Hey Gino, do you want to come along?" Sorbillo didn’t need to be asked twice! It went from Naples to Milan, and from there to the city where anything is possible: New York. Now he has two Zia Esterina restaurants there. For the record: Zia is the name of one of Gino’s aunts. Pizza fritta and calzone are the restaurants’ specialities. Now we are waiting for the first restaurant to open in Europe.
Gino Sorbillo has succeeded in taking pizza culture to a higher level, without betraying philosophy, identity and family history. His respect for the product, the ingredients and simplicity is very inspiring.
Hankering for even more street food ideas? Get inspired by the Neapolitan street food culture!