Sunday, December 13, 2009

Some Folks Like to Get Away...

There have been a few times in my 8 years in New York when I've stayed within the 5 boroughs yet felt like I was in a vacation town somewhere far away. Going out to Coney Island makes me feel as if I should be walking around in my bathing suit and drinking piña coladas - as long as I keep my flip flops on to avoid all the broken glass. Up in the Bronx, City Island is a remote hideaway on Long Island Sound that is filled with crab shacks and is sort of a poor man's (a very poor man) Cape Cod. And on just about any street in Jackson Heights, Queens, you're transported to an exotic Asian country populated by Chinese, Pakistanis, and yuppies.

I wasn't surprised that I had a similar feeling when I finally made it out to Bensonhurst in Brooklyn to try the famous pizza at L&B Spumoni Gardens. The name alone made me think I was heading to an idyllic bed and breakfast somewhere in Jersey circa 1973.

After the long subway ride into the depths of Brooklyn, I realized why this place is such an institution. It does feel like a local hotspot trapped in time that makes most of its revenue from curious tourists. It's also huge - you could probably spend the entire day exploring the three different eateries: the pizzeria, the spumoni stand, and the restaurant. And then enjoy your Italian three-course meal in the parking lot/garden area filled with park benches and featuring a view of dreary 86th Street.

The day I arrived was pretty windy and cold so nobody was relaxing on those inviting benches. But there was a lot of action inside the pizzeria. The tables were completely filled so I resigned to standing at the little bar that housed the parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes.

I definitely had to order their famous Sicilian slice, but was a bit hungry so I figured I'd try their round slice as well. The guy cutting my slices was such a stereotypical NY Italian and he was so aggressive and pushy that I was a bit intimidated. I ordered the square slice and I guess I must have mumbled the rest of my order because he snapped back with "A slice of WHAT?" It felt like he was reprimanding me for not speaking clear enough. And I even studied speech in acting school!

I ignored the confrontation because I think he could have taken me in a fight. And instead I huddled off to the side to taste my pizza. The Sicilian slice is different than the square ones I've been having around the city. This is an old-fashioned Sicilian slice with thick crust and the cheese hiding underneath the tomato sauce (as opposed to the thin crust grandma slices that are now so popular).

Hiding is right! It didn't seem like there was much cheese under all that sauce, but I liked the scattered parmesan garnish on top. The tomato sauce was decent but didn't stand out one way or the other and also seemed to get lost in the thick bread. The slice had a soft, doughy quality with a crisp char at the ends. Most of the ingredients melted away with the bread as I bit into it.

The main flavor here was bread - it sort of overshadowed the forgettable tomato sauce and cheese. It reminded me of those frozen square pizzas I used to love as a kid. It was crunchy, doughy, and unrefined.

The round slice was even less exciting and really just filler. It's what you'd expect from a typical NY slice and it did the job, but is not worth the trip. The main attraction here is the sicilian slice, which I could sort of take or leave.

I have read that new owners have taken over this place in the last few years and the quality has declined. That's a shame because L&B still feels like an old school favorite, but the pizza is pretty standard.

If you need a bit of a respite from the big city, there are plenty of other hideaways in the greater metropolitan area. And if you're going to travel this far for pizza, it's a no brainer: Hop on the Q train to Di Fara and watch a true NY legend at work.

Is L&B Spumoni Gardens the best pizza in NY? They do a decent Sicilian slice but it's not worth the special trip all the way out to Bensonhurst. I give it a 6 out of 10 for the thick, tomato-y dough.

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