Corner of Henry and President Streets
One rainy day last autumn while out walking my dog in my neighborhood some strangers approached me with a pizza question.
“Excuse me,” one of them said assertively and with a German accent, “Can you recommend a place for pizza?”
LOL, don’t you know who I am? I thought to myself. I’m Pizzacentric, and you’re so lucky to have found me!
But questions beget questions not answers, and that’s especially true when it comes to pizza recommendations.
What type are you seeking? How are you getting around and how much time do you have? Does ambiance matter? Where have you already been? Do you prefer old-school or trendy? Coal, wood, or gas? Low-moisture or fresh mozzarella? Must the menu have salad? Do you care about price? Do you care if there’s a wait? How does the fact that it’s raining figure in?
As this barrage of questions and contingencies (plus my own pizza memories and cravings) entered my head all at once, I froze.
They were now looking at me funny, as if they thought maybe they’d asked the wrong guy for a tip. But I’m the right guy, I’m the right guy!
I needed to get myself together.
Lucali popped into my mind first. It’s a well-known sit-down place with magnificent pizza, an ambiance bordering on romantic, and an owner who stands at the helm and is involved in the making of every pie. But alas, it was a Tuesday and Lucali is closed on Tuesdays.
Then, I thought of Sam's. It’s an old school place down the street and Louie the owner could make for a fun experience for these guys (these strangers who I don’t even know – why would I think this?!). I adore Sam’s (more for Louie and the decor than for the pizza these days but that's okay – for instance, if you go there with kids and the kids get up too much he might threaten to tape them to the chair with duct tape; that's his sense of humor) but – Oh shit, I realized to myself, Sam’s is closed on Tuesdays too!
Court Street near Douglass Street
“Have you had a slice of Grandma? Or are you interested in trying Upside Down pizza? There’s House of Pizza and Calzone just a few blocks away. It’s not fancy but they do a good job with these square-shaped versions of pizza. And they have a–”
“Well can you tell us if it’s too far to walk to Grimaldi’s? We came here to go to Lucali but it’s closed.”
Okay, now I got it. Of course. These were places they’d read about. Duh. Well at least they’d concluded that Lucali's was the top choice. Smart. They’d just failed to note that it’s closed on Tuesdays.
“You can walk to Grimaldi’s in about 20 or 25 minutes,” I told them. “But you know, a half a block away from Grimaldi’s is Juliana’s, which is actually owned by Patsy Grimaldi — the original Grimaldi. He sold it to the current owners years ago, was then completely out of the pizza business, and has now reopened with a new name in his old space. I think his pizza is actually a tad better than Grimaldi’s–”
They couldn’t have been less interested in the details I was sharing with them. No matter that I was touching upon one of New York’s most fascinating pizza stories – a saga that has spanned decades and involves multiple families and possibly secret threats and coercions. They didn’t even care that it’s better pizza. They just wanted to go to the place with the longest line.
Union Street between Hicks and Columbia Streets
But what about Lucali – the place the Germans didn't go to – and specifically, its owner Mark?
I asked Mark, when I ran into him the other day, which pizza in the ‘hood does he prefer, and he said, "I like all of them. Really, I eat at them all."
I wanted specifics, thinking to myself, where would he have sent the Germans. He agreed that House of Pizza and Calzone is excellent and also mentioned that lately he’s been enjoying the slice that they serve at South Brooklyn Pizza (a side door operation out of a German restaurant located right at my corner). “It’s a good slice. It’s crispy,” he said
I could have pushed him for more details about the Pizza of Today in Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill (our neighborhood) but there wasn’t time. He was holding onto a (badass) banana seat bicycle outside of the school where both of our daughters go, someone had opened the gate, and the mad rush to the blacktop had begun.
Anyway, it’s Mark’s memories of the Pizza of Yesterday that people (including those Germans) ought to hear. In me, his memories inspire extreme hunger and longing for the past. To anyone from NYC over the age of 30 who remembers what old neighborhoods with regular places were like, nostalgic feelings and hunger are also inevitable. And for the newbies and the tourists – wherever they’re from – Mark’s pizza memories should serve as a reminder that urban commerce evolves over time (not always for the better) and that many of the foods that we celebrate today have histories rooted not only in the culinary training of proprietors, but also in those people’s distinct food memories.
Oh, and back in the day, shit was definitely cheaper (by "shit" I mean "good shit").
A dichotomy of Old and New, at the corner of Court and Sackett Streets
Here then, is the roll call of pizza memories from Mark Iacono’s childhood:
Around the corner from where Mark and his family lived was LaBarbera Bakery, a place that – in addition to bread – offered square-shaped pizza pies that it sold throughout the day, including in the early morning. School days for Mark often began when, as he overslept, his brother Chris would scrounge up whatever change was around and walk around the corner to pick up some of those “crunchy on the bottom, soft on top” room temperature squares. “He’d go get the slices and then on the way back, as he passed our house, I would meet him outside and we would walk to school together,” Mark told me. [LaBarbera Bakery, 577 Henry St., RIP 1989.]
After school on Wednesdays, Mark and his brothers (with friends in tow) headed over to his Aunt Catherine’s for her “phenomenal sheet pan pies that were kind of like the Grandma [style of pizza].” [Aunt Catherine moved to New Jersey and no longer makes pizza.]
The rustic squares at Cristardi’s – originally a small restaurant and I think later, shrunken to a tiny room marked by no signs, on a side street behind a drugstore – were crispy platforms for showcasing a chunky tomato sauce that “was just awesome.” Cristardi’s was around when I first moved to the neighborhood. I loved it! [Cristardi’s, 214 President St., RIP 1999.]
Italian social club window on Henry Street, between Union and Sackett Streets - "SORRY"
For thin crust round pies and slices, Mark’s favorite place was The Gloria, its coal oven pizza a “blistery soupy mess” that he somehow managed to eat while walking. “It was a really old and dingy pick-up spot. The pizza was kind of like mine, but more soupy and a lot more charred. They made it in a coal burning brick oven and it had big blisters. Big big blisters. You know, they would leave them in. They wouldn’t pop them [like other places do]. I remember you would get these slices that were so out of whack. You could get a real tiny, tiny sliver or you could get a big huge slice. The whole pie was like that – and I could never understand why. I thought there was something wrong with the guy, you know, like how he didn’t take geometry in school or something. Now, after cutting pies [for a living], I understand: it’s the way you want the pizza to look. You know, your presentation is a big part of it, and [so you] avoid cutting through the big bubbles. You want the pie to look nice so you cut around the bubbles, but then you can get all these crazy-sized slices. That’s what I think. Because some of the slices at The Gloria were crazy. Some of them were rectangles, not even triangles! [The Gloria, 384 Court St., RIP circa 1980.]
Leonardo’s, which made thin-crusted brick oven pies, was Mark’s favorite place for a sit-down experience. You walked through a spacious espresso barroom with old timers standing and drinking coffee, and past the pizza oven and to-go counter, to enter a windowed dining room with a doorway that led to a grapevine-canopied patio. Leonardo’s made solid no-frills pizza with crunchy and charred edges and a chewy interior. Its closing coincided with Mark’s decision to open Lucali and, because he knew the owners, he obtained their espresso machine (and some tips on pizza-making). The space (the building is still owned by the same family) became a Dunkin’ Donuts/ Baskin Robbins combination restaurant. [Leonardo’s, 383 Court St., RIP 2005.]
Louie and his dad, Mario
The one remaining old spot in the neighborhood is the aforementioned Sam’s Restaurant (238 Court St.), a full-menu Italian joint that unlike most old Italian restaurants in New York, still serves pizza. The owners, Louie and his father Mario, in their refusal to gentrify along with the neighborhood, present gratifying doses of vintage decor and Brooklyn attitude – also vintage. This place perseveres despite an apparent culture war that would pit the neighborhood’s newest residents (and high priced restaurants – black truffle chicken for two for $65, anyone?) against the old neighborhood people – folks who, by the way, one can still encounter in front of certain newsstands and ex-flower shops, debating the merits of one slice vs. another and other important matters. Oh, and if it’s a snowy winter and there’s been a run on rock salt – call up Sam’s and see if they’ve got any in stock. Oh #2, if you bring a stroller to Sam’s, be prepared to fold it up and stow it near the coat hangers. Oh #3, Sam's has great gnocchi.
Quality control: Mark Iacono observes all 360° of the scene when making pies at his outstanding pizza restaurant, Lucali.
You could substitute other foods or any number of goods typically sold in unfashionable mom & pop shops for “pizza.” The disappearance of these kinds of places is alarming. No question, some places close because people get older and want to retire and there’re no kids interested in keeping things going. But for many, the formulation is simply math: if the rent is too damn high, how can a business survive selling pizza slices for $2.50 a pop?
In truth, that’s what I think motivated Mark to switch from his relatively-stress-free career as a stone fabricator to pizza shop proprietorship. While Lucali’s prices are higher than those at a typical slice joint, the pizza there is, I think, worth the extra money (a large plain pie is $24 and should serve two adults; it's made with a sublime cooked tomato sauce and mozzarella di bufala).
Most everyone who works at Lucali grew up in the neighborhood, and many are the kids of Mark's childhood friends.
Mark's story has been written many times but is worth recounting briefly. He saw one day that the old Louie’s Candy Shop on Henry Street was vacant. He ran into Louie's wife and told her that if there wasn’t a renter yet that he, Mark, would be interested. When they said yes, Mark didn’t yet know what he would do with the space. Thankfully, he made the connection between keeping at least this one little part of the neighborhood in neighborhood-hands and his unabashed/unpretentious love of pizza.
Rather than get into all of the blah blah about Lucali's food, I simply propose that you go there – whether it's for the first time or if you've been there many times. It doesn't get tired. Just be sure – especially if you have time while you're waiting for a table – to walk around the neighborhood and look for clues to its Italian past. If you want, track through the addresses to see what's become of Mark's favorite pizza places from the past. Original addresses are included in the above list. Oh, and be sure you don't attempt any of this on a Tuesday!
Though it's located in a quiet residential neighborhood several blocks
from the subway, people come to Lucali from all over – including even... Germany.
Lucali: 575 Henry Street, between Carroll Street and First Place, in Brooklyn (718-858-4086). Open 6pm-10pm Wednesday-Monday (closed Tuesdays); arrive early.
Sam's: 238 Court Street, at Baltic Street, in Brooklyn (718-596-3458). Open 12pm-10pm Wednesday-Monday; (closed Tuesdays); great old school Italian.