“I knew you were coming,” Giovanni said as I entered Luigi’s, “I knew it.” “How?” I asked. “Because,” he reminded me, “you wrote on Facebook that you were going to Time Warner Cable.” I had exchanged my cable box down the road, and Giovanni, with his laptop set up on one of his tables — never missing a beat — knew I couldn’t resist his pizza.
This small shop on a treeless, cheerless stretch of Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, not far from the Greenwood Cemetery, is more than a pizzeria: it is a social parlor where co-owner Giovanni Lanzo holds court with employees and customers all day and evening. Because he is a born storyteller, you may find yourself sticking around for longer than planned. I arrive with extra quarters for the meter — just in case.
He often talks about his father, the restaurant’s namesake, who retired in 2000. Topics include Luigi’s work ethic, his love for his customers, his no-nonsense approach to business, and his devotion to excellent ingredients.
“You know, it’s amazing, so amazing how my father is. He’s old-fashioned — that’s it. He never did anything wrong. He liked coming to his pizzeria. He came from Italy, so he didn’t have a million friends. His friends were the people that came into the store.”
In 1998 Luigi’s was used as a location in the feature film, “Big Daddy,” starring Adam Sandler.
“When they came to film,” recalls Giovanni, “the producer was shocked because my father told him that he wasn’t going to close the store. They had requested the store, they wanted to shoot it here, and we had worked out a figure. The director said, ‘Okay, you’re gonna close between 5 and 9.’ My father said, ‘Close? It’s Friday! My customers are coming here every day for 30 years. I’m not gonna close for you. I can’t. I don’t care if you give me $10,000 for one day. My customers are more important to me.’”
Giovanni pauses and smiles, then adds, “And that’s a day I learned something from my father. I said, Wow, all my college, all my years in school never taught me this. My father realized that his customers are what made him — not somebody who comes here once for ten grand. And so the movie people came, and we served our customers through the hallway.
“There’s one woman around the corner, Miss McLaughlin. She loves telling the story about how she saw someone from the movie set tell a customer that they couldn’t come in. My father overheard this and stopped the whole scene they were filming to bake her a pie and two calzones. She’s been getting that same order for over 30 years!
“It’s why I like coming here. It’s family here. I was born around the corner, so, I’m home. People around me know me since I’m born. They watched me grow up. I’m watching their kids grow up. It’s a neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood store.”
There are many stories, but Giovanni’s conversations usually include talk about pizza. “Growing up, I knew that pizza was something for the poor people, something for people to enjoy, you know, a fast meal, but good and healthy — and it wasn’t supposed to be expensive. You walk into these places now, it’s ridiculous, the prices are just too high. It’s how you make pizza. If you make it with your heart it’s going to come out good. All the gimmicks, like brick oven. There’s bricks in these ovens too,” he says, pointing to his pair of 1972 Baker’s Pride gas ovens. “It’s all about if you love to cook. That’s what pizza’s about: you cook it, you love making it, it comes out great!”
Because this is his parlor, he plays host and introduces customers to each other: “This is my local haircutter, Alberto. He’s the best haircutter you’re ever going to meet — a real haircutter with the old fashioned scissors. He comes from Bensonhurst — Bay Parkway — and now lives in Staten Island. They’ve got great pizza there, but not like this” and, “This is Luciano. He’s a new customer. He just started coming in about eight months ago — he’s like family now. He even wants my old oil so that he can run his diesel Mercedes. He converted it to bio all by himself. He’s got four of them. He hasn’t bought gas in six years.”
All talk (and occasional bragging) aside, Giovanni takes tremendous pride and care with his pizza. He does not bake rack upon rack of advance pizzas like other places. When a slice pie runs out — that’s when he makes another. His crust achieves a perfect duality: when folded, it splits along the bottom, holds together on top, and maintains simultaneous crunch and chew.
I have two favorites: the Supreme and the Grandma. The Supreme, invented by Giovanni together with one of his customers, is a cheese and tomato pie topped with sopressata from a pork store down the street, Italian sausage, green peppers, minced garlic, and a liberal drizzle of homemade green herb olive oil. The sopressata, with its complex spicy flavor, is added only after the pizza is done baking. Its richness balances the green peppers, and all of the toppings are cut small enough so that each bite includes every part.
The Grandma pie, which Giovanni calls “my mother’s pie,” is an entirely different experience but no less compelling. Fresh mozzarella and thick sauce meld with the pliable upper portion of the crust, while its underside is thin and crispy like an Italian cracker.
I asked Giovanni to summarize his feelings about pizza.
“I love pizza. I can eat it every day. I love making it. I love looking at it. Every pie I make I look at. Look at that square right there: the olive oil, the grated cheese — it’s perfect. I could love that all day — all day! Just fill my stomach with it. I just love pizza.”
Who: Owner Giovanni Lanzo and his sister, Marissa Lanzo. They have a few employees.
What’s there: Round, Square Sicilian, and Square Grandma; whole pie or by the slice. Specialty pies include the Supreme, Lasagne, and fresh mozzarella. Specialty pies and the Grandma get finished with Giovanni’s homemade green herb olive oil (he calls it “esto” sauce). Available toppings include: pepperoni, meatball, sausage, spinach, peppers, onions, garlic, esto, anchovies, sun dried tomatoes, eggplant, vodka sauce, and fresh mozzarella. All of Luigi's crusts are excellent.
Where: 686 Fifth Avenue (between 20th & 21st Streets) in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn (some refer to this location as South Slope or Greenwood Heights, but don’t use those terms with Giovanni because he insists it’s called Sunset Park). Tel. 718-499-3857. R train to Prospect Avenue or 25th Street.
Why go: Go for the pizza and for the dialogue. It’s a true pizza-as-bar experience and while it does a steady business all day long, you usually don’t have to wait long for your food.
How: Luigi’s excellence begins with the dough, which is always made 1-2 days in advance and appears to be wetter than the dough at most typical slice joints. Ask Giovanni about it and though he won’t tell you how it’s made, he will wax on about its redeeming qualities. (Some customers swear that Luigi’s dough is even better on Mondays because it has had an extra day to rise.)
Quote: “A chain is only as good as its weakest link, and Giovanni doesn’t have a weakest link.” (Jeff Plitt, a longtime writer and editor for the New York Zagat Survey, and a regular customer at Luigi’s.)
411: 686 Fifth Avenue (between 20th & 21st Streets) in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn (some refer to this location as South Slope or Greenwood Heights, but don’t use those terms with Giovanni because he insists it’s called Sunset Park). Tel. 718-499-3857. R train to Prospect Avenue or 25th Street. Map Luigi's. Hours: Mon - Thurs: 11 am - 10 pm; Fri - Sat: 11 am - 12 am; closed Sunday. Luigi's Facebook page.
This story was edited by partner-in-pizza, Chris Artis.