The Rise and Fall of Brooklyn Pizza Institutions

When it comes to Brooklyn pizzerias, two names leap immediately to mind. L&B Spumoni Gardens and Totonno’s of Coney Island have over 100 years of pizza-making history, collectively — but are they any good? On a recent spring day, Donny and I went and tried both of them.

Our first stop was L&B Spumoni Gardens, or, as my cousin puts it, “the place where they put the cheese under the sauce.” I think because the word “Garden” is in the name, I expected the outdoor area to be a little greener. Instead, it was a large concrete area dotted with picnic-style tables. I could definitely see the appeal as a neighborhood hangout, especially during the summer, but I was a little surprised by how spartan the place was. Donny and I each ordered a Sicilian slice, and got it cut out of a large pan.

Although Donny really loved his, I wasn’t so enamored of mine. It’s not that it didn’t taste good, but the gooey mass of dough and too much sauce was not what I would really classify as pizza. It was crispy on the bottom, but there was a bit of an undercooked spot of dough in the middle. Not my cup of tea, but if you love it more power to you.

After finishing the Sicilians, we walked down to Coney Island for Totonno’s, only recently opened again after a fire. When we arrived there were no tables available, but we quickly figured out the system. Basically everybody waiting for tables stands around outside, and everybody knows who is next in line (similar to the system I’ve heard about at Pizzeria Bianco). We didn’t have to wait too long before we took our seats.

We ordered a plain pie, but after we waiting out came a pepper and onion pie. It looked good but we didn’t want to take a pie that might have been prepared for someone else so we mentioned the mistake and they made the correct pie pretty quickly. At first bite it wasn’t anything special, but as the pie cooled I started to enjoy it more. The cheese got a little chewy, and the sauce was nicely seasoned. Totonno’s calls its pies Neapolitan, though they’re nothing like the Neapolitan pies that have been taking NYC by storm the past few years. Still, it’s a pretty good pizza. And for all I know, pizza in Naples is more like Totonno’s (though i doubt it).

What makes a restaurant an institution? When it comes down to it, the real criteria is how long the restaurant has been open. Great restaurants may come and go, but only a select few withstand the test of time. It’s not necessarily the quality of the food they serve, though it’s rare that a place serving bad food stays around for a long time. On the other hand, there are tons of places around NYC serving perfectly ordinary food, and have been doing so for years. There may be better pizza places in New York right now, but we will have to wait to see whether they become institutions. And while we wait, L&B Spumoni Gardens and Totonno’s will be around.

L&B Spumoni Gardens — 2725 86th St, Brooklyn
Totonno’s Coney Island — 1524 Neptune Ave, Brooklyn

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