Sorrento's Pizza (Review)

Family institution has been a Cincinnati staple for more than 50 years

Aug 27, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Critic's Pick

The only thing thicker than blood is pizza sauce. Combine the two, and you have a recipe for Sorrento's Pizzeria.

Pizza has often been synonymous with one family in our city, the LaRosas, but the De Luca family has been spinning the dough at Sorrento's just about as long. Just two years after Buddy opened shop, the De Luca family patriarch, Enrico, and his two partners began their pizza empire (called Enrico's) with 22 outlets.

After selling the franchises to Pasquale's, Enrico and his wife Santina opened Sorrento's Pizzeria in 1956. They've been making their own dough, sauce, bread, meatballs, lasagna, desserts and sausage ever since.

In fact, Mama Santina, now 87 years old, makes a lot of this on a daily basis. If you keep up with local news, you'll know that the pizzeria/sports bar was destroyed by fire in 2005, a fire that also claimed the life of Enrico. Like all hard-working souls, the De Lucas didn't sit down and wring their hands. They rebuilt.

But then they were hit again — before the new building was to open, Willie De Luca, son and manager of Sorrento's, died unexpectedly.

The fire destroyed 75 percent of one of the city's finest sports memorabilia collections, but the new building has a Softball Hall of Fame that features old newspaper clippings of Willie and his teams as well as photos and signed balls. I have to admit that I missed Vanna White's dress — an interesting item for the collection and one I didn't see in the new building — but even more I missed the anticipation of hoping Willie would balance things like a dining room chair or football helmet on his nose to entertain the kids. Many people don't know Willie was once on Late Night with David Letterman showing off this skill.

Under the glass on the bar are worn ticket stubs from Xavier, UC and Reds games. Even a Pretenders concert stub. But the family photos are what drew my eye. Like tiny shrines, the photos show Enrico, Santina and their children, three of whom currently run the restaurant: Esa De Luca-Stewart, Art and Ralph.

Over the years that Sorrento's has been in business, pizza has transformed into an entire food group of its own. Now you can get it with goat cheese, arugula and even truffle oil. You can get it grilled, stuffed or fried. But the De Lucas never gave in to these trends. Their pizza is fresh, homemade and baked in a brick oven. They've stayed true to solid, stick-to-your-ribs Italian dishes, many named for local and national sports figures. (My niece, who swore she knew nothing about sports, knew that the Home Run pizza ($14/$19/$22) with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, onion, green peppers, bacon, black olives, extra cheese and extra sauce was named after a player for the Cleveland Indians, Pat Tabler.)

We started with Ken Williamson's favorite, the Sorrento Salad ($4.75) and homemade Minestrone ($4). The soup was good, check-full of pasta, spinach, beans and tomato. But I have to disagree with ol' Ken here: The salad — a small dish of iceberg, pepperoni, cheese and tomato — was unsatisfying and the price seemed pretty steep.

When the pizzas arrived, however, all was forgiven. When they tore into a small pizza topped with spicy homemade sausage, banana peppers and onions ($11), my niece and her husband commented on how good the dough was — thick and soft but not underdone. We simultaneously realized the sad fact that we were all used to the cardboard crust of frozen pizza. My plate of Spaghetti with Homemade Italian Sausage ($12.50) arrived with thick noodles covered in tangy tomato sauce — not sweet like LaRosa's.

The plain cheesecake ($4) that we split for dessert was like that of my childhood, two inches tall with a graham cracker crust. It was a creamy finish to a well-rounded meal. (By that I mean we were all stuffed!)

A few nights later I returned. Art was singing the praises of the Margherita Napoletana pizza ($14/$19/$22) when we had said our goodbyes the last time, so I found myself lured back.

And he wasn't exaggerating. The bold flavors of tomato, garlic oregano and Parmesan tasted unbelievably good, especially when paired with my new favorite red wine find called Red (I'm not lying). And who could argue with one little Cannoli ($4), a thick cookie enclosing a thick cream that was subtly flavored with liqueur and nutmeg.

The De Lucas don't put on any airs. Their food, simple and good, is served with a sincere desire to make you part of the family.

Sorrento's Pizzeria

Go: 5141 Montgomery Road, Norwood
11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday; noon-11 p.m. Sunday
Entree Prices:
All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives:
Vegetarian pizza and various pastas
Fully accessible