On a recent night at Baby Luc’s, an accessible Brooklyn slice shop by the team behind the more exclusive Lucali, a staffer noticed I had gotten caught cycling in a rainshower, so he extended a courtesy not typical for a New York restaurant. He invited me to sit inside the dining room — and to bring in my dripping wet road bike as well. Minutes later I was sipping a mezcal negroni and filling up on square slices laden with gobs of creamy ricotta and bitter broccoli rabe. The rest of the pies weren’t particularly notable, but the hospitable gesture reminded me, yet again, of how vital slice joints are, both as neighborhood gathering spots and as affordable-ish places of respite from the elements. That’s something to celebrate, even if one should expect more from Mark Iacono, one of the city’s most renowned pizzaiolos.
Of the four slices on offer — there’s also margherita, pepperoni, and sausage, priced at $4 to $4.50 — the broccoli rabe is the only one I can recommend at this young, seven week-old Carroll Gardens venue.
New York has been undergoing a slice revolution for at least half a decade now, with bakers employing high hydration and long fermentation techniques to lighten up their pies, sometimes resulting in pizzas so light and snackable they almost go down like puffy gougeres. On the more creative side of the spectrum, places like Corner Slice in Hell’s Kitchen and L’Industrie in Williamsburg often toy around with toppings like Buffalo chicken and fig jam, while venues like Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint and F&F in Carroll Gardens strive for more more restrained reimaginings of slice shop fare (though they too can get more fanciful at times with hot honey and brown butter).
During my visits to Baby Luc’s, however, the kitchen sent out much denser and heavier pies than its peers. The somewhat underbaked slices rank among the doughiest I’ve sampled outside of Sbarro. The gas-fired pizza don’t doesn’t sport as many bubbly air packets as it should, and the crust seems to expand in the stomach, weighing down your insides and your mood like an unfinished work project due on Monday morning.
Whatever San Marzano tomato blend the chefs employ is only vaguely superior to something retrieved from the supermarket spaghetti sauce aisle. The mozzarella, in turn, exhibits nice stretchiness without packing any sort of memorable dairy flavor. Giant leaves of fresh basil garnish each slice, though the grassy freshness doesn’t quite jibe with the more industrial-tasting pizza. Adding them is like pairing a neon Jolly Rancher with a glass of fresh melon juice; the contrast is jarring. This all means you can skip the margherita, though you’ll do marginally better with pepperoni and sausage slices, where the meats do a respectable job at masking what’s underneath.
One would hope for better pizza from the Lucali crew, a restaurant with no shortage of fans or critical admirers. In 2009, when then-GQ critic Alan Richman made a list of the country’s top pies, he put the wood-fired, thin crust pizza at Lucali in the number two slot. Nearly a decade later, ex-New York Times critic Sam Sifton penned a 900-word ode to the ballet-like movements Iacono carries out while preparing his pizza, comparing them to the grooming motions of a “jungle cat.” Those gestures, Sifton explained, also resembled the rituals of a priest “preparing the Eucharist...He stretches the dough, hand to hand, as if meditating, as if performing a rite.”
I never developed the same affection for Lucali as its most loyal patrons, though one can, in theory, understand the allure. It’s a candlelit room where a mythical artisan (with a storied past) stands by his oven on a de facto stage, making pizza the way one might expect from a grandiose performer at the Metropolitan Opera — or an actor in “The Young and the Restless.” When I tried swinging by on a Saturday a few years back, the host told me the space was full for the evening. When I asked for tips on getting in, their response was crystal clear: “Don’t come on Saturday.”
I’m told Baby Luc’s attracted serious lines during its opening days in late July, selling out within two hours of opening, and indeed most of the venue’s 100 or so seats, the bulk of them outside, were filled with hungry patrons on a sunny Friday evening. The wait for a margherita slice was roughly 20 minutes around 7 p.m., which is a lot more reasonable than hanging out at a nearby bar for three hours for your Lucali table.
Right now, your best bet is the white slice, which frames the straightforward creaminess of good ricotta against the delicate pungency of broccoli rabe. That oven-burnished vegetable, in the hands of the kitchen, sometimes displays a crispness that recalls a fallen autumn leaf. Even with the underwhelming dough, it is sublime.
So what does Baby Luc’s provide that other slice shops don’t? How does it advance the city’s pizza conversation? The answer isn’t quite clear from a culinary perspective just yet, and that’s okay for now. Pull up an outdoor seat, have a slice of broccoli rabe pie, and sip a cool mezcal negroni ($13) while the sun sets over Carroll Gardens — or during a thundershower. Honestly, it feels nice to be eating out again, and pizza that’s just okay is better than no pizza at all, I suppose.