Since 1935, the Sorbillo family has been feeding Napoli, serving up not only the iconic Pizza Napoletana and (some say even more importantly) a close relative: pizza fritta. Walk the streets of Napoli and you’ll be hard pressed not to find a corner of the city where the scent of fried dough in the air fails to linger. Fried pizza has been said to be as common as Mozzarella di Bufala or Sfogliatelle. There are two likely guesses. Time and money.
Gino Sorbillo is at the helm of the slowly growing family-owned empire alongside his younger brother Antonio. Their father was born into a family of 21 pizzaioli. They all worked to varying degrees in the booming family business of pizza and in the late 30s and 40s, pizza fritta was the affordable option for the unemployed and a fast option at lunchtime for workers rebuilding the city after the war. Pizza fritta is prominently featured in the post-war classic 1954 film D’Oro di Napoli (The Gold of Napoli - start watching at 20.40) directed by Vittorio De Sica where Sophia Loren famously makes pizza fritta in 1930s worn torn Napoli. Unfaithful to her husband, she pretends to lose her wedding ring in the pizza dough to explain why it’s missing. The scene is said to have been filmed down the street where the original Sorbillo still stands near via dei Tribunali with 15 other pizzerias, likely the largest concentration of pizzerias in a city of more than 800.
Beyond the Sorbillo legacy of dough slinging pedigree, Gino Sorbillo ran for mayor some years back and received global notoriety in 2012 when he reopened his pizzeria the day after the Neapolitan mafia set it ablaze. Gino was determined to let Napoli and even more so, Italy know he’d not let them get in the way (and urged neighbors and tourists to do the same). The name Zia Esterina Sorbillo comes from, “Aunt Esterina” one of Gino’s beloved aunts who was said to make the best pizza fritta at Sorbillo. Today in Napoli, two Zia Esterina Sorbillo cater to locals and tourists alike in the city center. Over 1500 pizza fritta of the same found in Milan (to even a longer line outside) are devoured daily.
Pizza fritta is considered low maintenance in the kitchen compared to its older sibling; while the dough and ingredient quality matter (Sorbillo sources organic flour and San Marzano DOP tomato sauce and respected cheeses), the key requirement to its delightfully crisp texture is simple: a pot of hot frying oil. Traditional pizza obsessives (like myself) ponder oven heat temperatures, fire and electricity sources and the sacred dance of the pizzaioli Pizza Napoletana. They assemble, insert, spin, observe and wait as circular pizzas expand inside sweltering ovens, their crusts bubbling up from olive oil and heat. At Sorbillo in Napoli, up to 8 pizzaioli work in unison on two ovens in intimate piping hot quarters. The pizza fritta pizzaiolo, in comparison, some say, has it easy. And the cost of keeping a fryer hot is negligible considering that most pizza ovens these days run on electricity, or burn through large quantities of wood which can be costly.
The line outside Zia Esterina Sorbillo in Milano spills onto a side street near the pulsing tourist center of Duomo. Neapolitan locals and a few tourists assemble early to watch their pizza fritta as it’s made, projected on a live medium-sized TV screen mounted above the open entrance. Surrounded by government buildings, a vibrant shopping district and a bevy of restaurants, Zia Esterina is smaller than a one-bedroom studio apartment. Order from the short menu of four different types of savory pizza fritta whose style and ingredients does not wander from classic Napoli (expect for the Nutella pizza fritta, a modern take). A round circle of dough is filled with a combination of meat or tomato, cheeses and fresh black pepper folded over into a half moon shape. If baked in an oven, this pizza would be called a calzone and for this reason, guests may feel the urge to call it a “fried calzone.” Call it what you want amongst friends, this pizza fritta is as traditional as you’ll find in Northern Italy. The iconic version (recommended by me) is cicoli, ricotta, smoked provola and black pepper. Hard to find anywhere but Napoli, Cicoli is like a poor man’s guanciale (when I called 5 Italian groceries in New York to buy some I was bewildered that a few well-stocked shops didn’t even know what it was). Made from leftover scraps of porkfat once the pig is broken down, it is salted and dry aged, then sliced into thin slices resembling salami. In Sorbillo’s pizza fritta, it’s flavor is mellowed by fresh cow’s milk ricotta and melty smoked provola.
Half submerged in sunflower oil, the pizzaiolo bastes the pizza pocket for about 40 seconds as it inflates, crisping to a light golden yellow. When it comes up for air, it’s gently patted down with butcher paper to ensure crunch and not grease at first bite. Note: the amateur mistake for first timers is in the timing -- it is extremely hot. The best advise any local will share is to wait five minutes before taking a bite. Walk to the nearby Piazza San Fedele or join locals sitting on the curb in the shade with a Peroni in-hand. When cool to touch through the wax paper, carefully squeeze the inside of the pizza fritta from bottom to top to ensure your second or third bite is more than just near perfect fried dough.