This is the first installment of a new series called Is It Still Good? Eater NY will be revisiting long-established restaurants that have acquired towering reputations and still generate plenty of traffic to find out if the food quality justifies our continued admiration. The first review spotlights old-timer L&B Spumoni Gardens in Gravesend, Brooklyn.
Who can forget their first glimpse of L&B Spumoni Gardens? Hopping off the D train at 25th Avenue, you pass several restaurants from Georgia and Azerbaijan as you propel down 86th Street, and then spot a subway car absurdly parked in a schoolyard. (It’s part of an MTA training center.) Next on your left looms your objective, L&B Spumoni Gardens. With its red picnic tables, quaint sign featuring a horse-drawn cart, flapping Italian and American flags, and festive atmosphere, it looks like a carnival has come to town.
This charming place was founded in 1939 by Ludovico Barbati, an immigrant from Torella dei Lombardi in Campania, Italy, east of Naples. He’d been delivering pizzas in his horse-drawn cart, but when he spotted an empty lot on 86th Street in Gravesend, convenient to the Italian stronghold of Bensonhurst, he decided to build a spumoni factory. This gelato combination favored by southern Italian immigrants consists of three separately scooped flavors: mild chocolate, painfully green pistachio, and a cremolata that tastes more like tutti frutti.
Gradually over the decades, the factory added a shack to sell spumoni, a pizza window, and a café that morphed into a formal dining room. Somewhat miraculously, the complex is still owned by the Barbati family, now in its fourth generation. When I first started going 25 years ago, L&B was like a tumultuous scene from Grease, with convertibles cruising by and young canoodling couples sprawled across the picnic tables. Now, it’s one of Brooklyn’s most famous culinary destinations, filled with munching tourists as well as aging locals hosting their kids and grandkids.
It’s easy to take L&B Spumoni Gardens for granted, and simply stop visiting. But it recently turned 80 years old, and an owner was shot and killed in his own front yard a couple years ago. As summer arrived, it felt like the right time to pay a return visit and see if the place was still as good as the picture my memory had painted.
Saturday afternoon is always a peak time at L&B, and this early summer Saturday was no exception. A few things you should know about this Gravesend classic: Don’t bother entering the parking lot if you’re driving; it’s always jammed with vehicles waiting for a spot. Explore the surrounding streets, which go off in all sorts of jagged directions due to the area’s competing street grids.
There are four dining areas: picnic tables out front; a covered area of more picnic tables on the side, great for days when rain threatens; an inner dining room more like a formal restaurant; and a glassed-in porch with a view of the outdoor picnic tables within the restaurant that incorporates the best of all the other seating schemes. These last two offer waiter service; they’re best for a sit-down meal, though then you’ll miss the wild scene outside.
Outside is self-service from several separate windows. Proceed to the arched left window for slices of pizza, but be prepared to wait in line at a separate window directly to the right for a whole pie. The counter offers two types of pizza, a conventional Neapolitan slice that you could find in any Brooklyn neighborhood, and a square Sicilian slice that represents one of the city’s most distinctive pies.
The Sicilian pies — referred to as “sheets” — are rectangular in shape and divided into 12 square slices. The crust on this slice is thick, and the cheese is layered underneath the tomato sauce, which glints dark red and slightly sweet. Putting the cheese underneath the tomato sauce, sometimes called the upside down Sicilian style, is intended to keep the crust from getting soggy. This desire is somewhat ironic, since another feature of these pies is that they’re purposefully under-baked, leaving the middle a bit doughy. Some like it, some hate it. A square slice will set you back $3.
In the middle of the complex is a courtyard that opens to the picnic area. On the left are two windows devoted to ices and gelatos. These are usually scooped into little white cups by a set of perky male attendants. It is customary to not use a spoon, but to squeeze the frozen product out the top. Cones are available, too, and the ice flavors run to the usual lemon, chocolate, cherry, and coconut.
But if you’ve never tried it before, spumoni is the move ($3.25). It has a slight gritty quality and tastes of the long ago, and you can’t get anything quite like this spumoni anywhere else in the city.
Another window in the covered courtyard provides heroes and pastas — plus seafood, chicken, or veal entrees — to be taken away or eaten at the picnic tables. The heroes are superb, made on good crusty bread and using a generous quantity of ingredients. Go for the classics like meatball or eggplant parm. On this occasion, I picked the sausage, peppers, and onions hero ($9.95), a signature of saint’s day street fairs all over the borough. It was more generously furnished with peppers and onions than usual, and they had been freshly sautéed, too. The sausages tasted engagingly of fennel.
As much as L&B seems like a snacking place where one should dart in for an ice or a slice, the sit-down restaurant proved one of the best red-sauced joints in Brooklyn, certainly the equal of Bamonte’s, Michael’s, Colandrea New Corner, and Joe’s of Avenue U. Portions are huge, including a trio of breaded veal cutlets ($23.95) swamped in sauce. Vegetables and either pasta or, in a Sicilian flourish, a pair of potato croquettes arrive along with it. Then, configured in the same contrary way as the square slice, the spaghetti and meatballs ($15.95) came with the ground meat orbs concealed underneath, making a dramatic appearance as you dug down into the perfect al dente pasta. No wobbly limp spaghetti here.
And finally, no meal is complete without a plate of the garlicky broccoli rabe. Order wine by the grape, including a perfectly good chianti which comes chilled. It’s summer, after all. Dinner for two, including a carafe of wine, is approximately $60 or $70. L&B Spumoni Gardens entirely rocks, even at this advanced age.