This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
[Photo: L & B Spumoni Gardens]
I have never driven to any of the destinations profiled in this column. "Who Goes There?" is strictly a piece of shoe-leather reporting. But I happened to briefly be in possession of a car this week, so I motored to far-off L & B Spumoni Gardens in Gravesend. The circumstances couldn't have been more appropriate. L&B is a drive-to-it kind of place. There's a parking lot next to it dedicated to its customers. And, though the lot is sizable, it's always full. Even on a Tuesday afternoon.
Look at the license plates and you will start to grasp who comes here. It's a fairly even split between Empire State and Garden State motorists. The New Yorkers come from all over, all five boroughs and from out on Long Island. Plenty of locals haunt the place as well, positioning their ample bellies under the picnic tables the line the front of the joint. There's usually a cop car or two double-parked on 86th Street — New York's Finest love L & B. Finally, there's the tourists. A busload of them truck in from Manhattan every single day. Seriously. Every day. It's no wonder this family-owned place, founded in 1939, has stayed in business.
What you come here for is the namesake spumoni— it's homemade, perhaps the best in town, and people buy it by the five-gallon tub — and pizza. There's a sit-down restaurant attached to the east end of the low-slung building, where you can order sandwiches and pasta. But in 20 years, I've never eaten there and I'm not sure who does. As to pizza, you can order a slice of "round" or "square." But if you order the ordinary, lackluster round, you're an amateur and obviously don't know what you're doing. L & B is famous for their one-of-a-kind Sicilian slice — crispy on the bottom, light as a feather throughout, a minimum of mozzarella topped with tomato sauce and loads of parmesan. It's routinely regarded as the best Sicilian slice in town.
Inside, where you order the spumoni, you can scan a pictorial history of the place. "That's from fuhgetaboudit," said an employee, referring to an old photo of Ludovico Barbati in his horse drawn ice-cream cart. Barbati learned how to make the sweet stuff from a local baker. The horse's name was Babe, like Paul Bunyon's Blue Ox. Then there are pictures of when the place was smaller, more art deco, and called L&B Luncheonette. The middle building of the three-building complex is the oldest. The pizzeria arm of the enterprise didn't arrive until the 1950s. It's strange, actually. What with the fame of its pies, the word "pizzeria" has never been part of the L&B name.