Founded in 1939, L & B Spumoni Gardens is Brooklyn's quintessential summer hang. The restaurant is really three institutions in one — a pizzeria, an ice cream parlor, and an informal red-sauced Italian restaurant — all situated in three connected brick buildings surrounded by outdoor seating at distinctive red picnic tables. On warm summer evenings the place throngs with customers who come on foot from the immediate Gravesend neighborhood, and by car and subway from more remote parts of the borough, like a carnival and high school reunion rolled into one. But once fall arrives along with colder weather, the place largely clears out, except for customers who dart in, cars still running by the curb, to score a slice of pizza, hero sandwich, or paper cup of spumoni. This last weekend I arrived with some friends in a cloudburst to say farewell to summer at L & B.
The pizza parlor on the south side of the complex peddles round, thin-crust Neapolitan pies, but more famously it sells "sheets"—thick-crusted, rectangular Sicilian pizzas in the upside-down style, with the cheese right next to the crust and the tomato sauce on top. You'll either love this pizza or hate it, because the crust is purposely left a little undercooked, so that the slice seems partly filled with raw dough. Think of it as a savory version of cookie-dough ice cream. The sauce is sweet, and the top sprinkled with dried cheese for extra flavor and saltiness. There's no seating for the pizzeria, and with the rain pouring down steadily, we took our square slices to the north side of the complex, where the outdoor tables are covered with a red tent open at the sides.
Next we went for the spumoni. L & B doesn't really sell ice cream, but what used to be termed "milk ices," which are a bit lighter and more crystalline than, say, gelato or Haagen Dazs. More properly termed "spumone," which comes from the Italian word spuma, which means sea foam, spumone in Naples is a molded frozen treat with layers of candied fruit and nuts in between layers of ice cream. In the Italian-American canon, it has been repurposed to mean three separate flavors of ice milk served together: chocolate, nut-studded pistachio, and a vanilla that comes flecked with tidbits of candied fruit. The result is scrumptious, though maybe not for everyone. L & B sells these three flavors separately, too, and a handful of water ices such as lemon, chocolate, and cherry.
Spumoni still dribbling off our chins and already full, we went for a selection from the door marked Restaurant, behind which is a large carryout area with a door leading to a sit-down restaurant that is open all year and features Southern Italian and Sicilian specialties. The carryout has separate menus for pastas, hot sandwiches, and entrees. There was never any doubt in my mind what we would order: L & B's iconic meatball parm hero. On good crusty bread and of ginormous size, it comes freighted with a half-dozen meatballs, profuse floe of cheese, and the same tomato sauce, thick and smeary, seen on the Sicilian slice. At first bite, it seems bland, but with each successive bite the richness of the ingredients asserts itself, and we wolfed it down like the starving prisoners of foodism that we are.
Having said our farewell to summer and L & B until next June rolls around, we headed for a postprandial tour of the ancient village of Gravesend, not too far away. Four blocks centered on Gravesend Neck Road just west of McDonald include Lady Moody's house, dating to the mid-17th century, and a pair of ancient cemeteries. One of these fantastically uncared-for burial grounds contains the remains of two high-ranking Revolutionary War officers who participated in the Battle of Brooklyn. Why are the remains of war heroes so neglected by our city government? The officers were British.
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