Letter From Camp NYC Pizza, Vol I
We landed at JFK tired, a little confused, and hungry. We were right on track following the steps of the Italian immigrant history of pizza, here in old New York City. It’s 28 of us, Austin. Some of us have gone every year for the last six; some of us have never been to New York before at all. Some of us worked until about three hours before the plane took off @7:00 AM yesterday. Some were too nervous too sleep. All of us, dear Austin, came here on our pilgrimage w/ a piece of Austin in our hearts. It is the graffiti we leave behind here in this concrete canyon, here is this tall city w/ small strips of sky. We come like the immigrants before us, with our native Texas soil in the crease of our shoes, to New York so that we can learn more than we know, test what we believe, and, unlike the immigrants, to return home to the soft and rolling hills, the clear and wide sky, the sweet and cool rivers and greenbelt, of the City that is our home, the place where our ovens burn.
We went straight to L&B Spumoni, in Gravesend, Brooklyn, just spitting distance from Bensonhurst. It is an aging Italian community and there, for 63 years, is this pizza shop: L&B. It has a wall of ovens, 3 triple stacks in a row, w/ a fourth in the corner, a pounding table between it and the long line of shiny, metal deck ovens. Out front there is a large patio, lined w/ long rows of bench tables. The locals outnumber the tourists 2:1, and tourists arrive in busses for the famous Sicilian Square pie. The accents are amazing, Austin. They are sharp, and lyrical, and hard nosed. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about “Dis Guy” or “Dat Guy”. Everyone was advising the other: “fuggehdaboutit”. We could not fugghedabout their pie, their famous Sicilian. Its lift is something else, Austin – like pound cake. The sauce is sweet, not quite like cake icing but somehow not quite not like cake icing. The pizza men carried pie after pie out of their kitchens into the patio, to the waiting groups of families, and strangers who had become friends. I can’t lie, I think our Sicilian is different – crisper, lighter, less saucy, but saucier in attitude. Confident and sexy. Just like you, Austin.
We later went to Lucali, in Carroll Gardens. This little shop is just over seven years old (remind you of any other pizza shops you might know?). The owner and pizza maker, Mark Ionoco, is a neighborhood guy who made good and took over a failing candy store and converted it into a shop which is, in its own way, an homage to Dom DiMarco @ DiFara’s Pizza. Mark is cooking in a 900° wood fired oven. He hangs his kitchen mandolin on the parmesan grinder mounted on the corner of the thick marble slab where he hunches and stretches his dough. His pies cook in just under three minutes, with minimalist but bona fide ingredients. Oh, Austin, I wish you could meet Mark. We’re trying to convince him to come visit. He’s dying to do so. He’s heard so much about you. Mark opened his shop to us, and talked pizza w/ us. He was kind of stunned at what we knew, and that there were so many of us. It is simply him and an apprentice, in his shop, with three very, very pretty women working the front of house and lavishing us w/ hospitality. We shook hands when we left, pleased to meet a brother in arms, and friend in a strange place.
Today we took pizzas from Ben’s, pizzas from Prince Street Pizza, Italian, Meatball, and Eggplant subs from Faccio’s (est. 1932) and carried the entire picnic across the island of Manhattan to the piers on the West Side, with the beautiful Statue of Liberty directly South of us, and New Jersey to the West. We stared West, past that industrial skyline, and knew you were past that horizon, Austin. We ate slices, sharing bites. We fed each other sandwiches, careful of the messy and downright sexy marinara sauce on the meatball and eggplant parms. Their Italian Assorted was brilliant in the contrast of the spices in the cured Italian meats, and the zing of the vinegar dressing the lettuce and tomatoes. The picked peppers are an amazing touch. The bread, so soft and deep in texture and flavor, is dusty w/ flour, and split up the side like a taco.
There are no Breakfast Tacos here, Austin. It is hard to believe. It’s most hard to believe in the morning, when you really want a taco.
We leave in a couple of hours for Staten Island, to Denino’s Pizzeria. It’s a home grown, family shop now run by ex-fireman Mike. Mike’s great grandfather John (American born and Sicilian Immigrant’s son) opened the shop in 1937Mike also has a room full of ovens, like L&B, satisfying the community that grew up eating that pie for special occasions of celebration, or simple occasions of families joining for food. Their pie is special, Austin. Crisp and perfectly cooked. Served w/ a kind of Staten Island sass that warms your heart, and tickles your ribs.
We are two days in, Austin, w/ two more to go. There is so much to see, so much to try to learn. So many great cooks and pizza makers. And, I have to tell the truth: the people here are really, really nice. New York has been kind and loving to us.
But we look forward to coming home, Austin. To be with you, day and night. To feed you the pie we make with love, in the town that is our home. We are immigrants no more, Austin. And in two days, we will be home.