Originally Published June 4, 2010
As the sun sets over Brooklyn, its last gasps of light streaking the sky with pink shards against a deep blue backdrop, looking like camouflage as envisioned by Elio Fiorucci, they flock to L & B Spumoni Gardens. Just as they did last summer, and the summer before that. And the same way that their parents and grandparents did before them. Decked out in tank tops, golden necklaces, and gaudy designer jeans, sentimental tattoos on sun scorched skin poke out from their shirts, the scent of hair gel and cheap cologne permeating the air. The costumes may have changed over the generations but the teenage pantomime—reenacted year after year since time immemorial—follows the same script. Smoking Newports under the arches of the BMT on 86th Street, late-night punch ups in parking lots, going to the stadiums to watch the Mets lose or the Yanks win, day trips to boardwalks, cheering on Graziano or Marciano or Manicini or Malignaggi, being hungover for the first time, the awkward fumble of a virgin kiss....It all begins under the neon glow of the signs at L & B and a few slices of Sicilian pizza.
The Sicilian slice at L & B is unique, even when compared to slices with a similar architecture—the cheese is placed directly on the dough and the sauce is placed on top of that with a dusting of Pecorino Romano and lashings of olive oil finishing off the pie. But whereas most Sicilian crust at least aspires toward airiness and chewiness, the dough at L & B is dense and fractures rather more abruptly. It is not leaden, there is some give, but it is altogether more brittle, the bottom deeply burnished.
The cheese acts as dam against the deluge of sauce and keeps the dough relatively arid. It doesn't seem to do much else. It is applied in such sparring amounts that it barely registers on the palate and is no match for the dense layer of San Marzano tomato sauce. The latter is almost preposterously sweet but also lipsmackingly tart. While the sauce is perfumed with oregano, it is mostly just intensely "tomatoey." If you didn't grow up on it, it may seem strange and alien to you, falling into the category of tastes that need to be acquired. If you did grow up on it, it is a taste that is required. As much a part of life as the rattle of the elevated train and the heat of summer.
There is also a regular slice on offer, and it is rather good. Thin and soft, the sauce is less apparent and the cheese more abundant than on the Sicilian slice. It would be the envy of a great many neighborhood pizzerias. But not here, where the square rules the day. And of course there is the spumoni, which is a required addition to any visit.
As for the youths who line up for square slices, their whole lives ahead of them, they will grow up one day. The seemingly endless days of summer ceding to autumn, the nights shortening and becoming more brisk. They will go on to become butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. They will bring their kids here after Little League just as their fathers did, and the kids will grow and do the same for their kids. But they will always remember most fondly those humid teenage nights under the stars with their crew of friends and those tangy squares of Sicilian from L & B—a rite of passage in the form of pizza.
2725 86th Street Brooklyn, NY 11223