Lest you think Brooklyn is a land where cupcakes grow wild amidst newly sprouted luxury condominiums, know that there is new Brooklyn and real Brooklyn. In new Brooklyn, the word “artisanal” is used to describe yarn, pickles, moonshine, pound cake, soda, mayonnaise, and pencil sharpening.
In real Brooklyn, artisanal products are gravestones, iron gates, tire rims, and pizza.
Case in point, L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst/Gravesend, nowhere near Bedford Avenue or the Brooklyn Flea. Sorry Caleb, this story isn’t for you. Nunzio, pull up a chair.
Recently name-dropped in the sidesplitting Funny or Die clip “Bensonhurst Spelling Bee,” Spumoni Gardens began as Ludovico Barbati’s horse-drawn ice cream cart, grew into a luncheonette, and 73 years later is owned and operated by the fourth generation of Barbati’s family. It’s real Brooklyn in full bloom, with sanitation workers, cops, goodfellas, and hungry afterschool kids eating outside in the sun on metal picnic tables.
Of course, you must have spumoni, a dessert which embodies the very ethos and Latin origin of the word artisanal. Spumoni is molded ice cream in two or three flavors with alternating layers of whipped cream flavored with rum, candied fruit, or nuts. Often, the ice cream itself is lightened with whipping cream or egg whites.
Barbati learned the art of spumoni from an Italian baker and began making his own in a garage not far from Coney Island. He then sold it from his cart until he was able to buy a vacant spot on 86th Street in Brooklyn. Needing help, he asked his fellow Italian immigrants, bricklayers, carpenters, and cement workers, to build him a workspace and store for his spumoni. Two extra buildings later, the business has widely expanded, but the recipes remain traditional.
The menu, whether you order from the counter and eat outside or dine in at the luncheonette, is orthodox Italian-American fare: marsala, francese, marinara, piccata, parmigiana, and fra diavolo. Spumoni Gardens boasts a “Notte Di Natale” sauce of lobster, scallops, and shrimp, which is a year-round ode to the traditional Neapolitan Christmas Eve fish dinner, and a broccoli rabe side dish, a bitter green only an Italian could love.
Arancini, or “rice balls” as they are simply called at Spumoni Gardens, are the nexus of old Sicily and real Brooklyn. The insides are filled with a delicately composed stuffing of browned ground beef, rice, and peas, and the outside glazed with egg wash and then breaded. Rice balls are then fried to order until golden and crispy and served covered in warm tomato sauce. An order of two costs $4.50.
But really, what Spumoni Gardens is all about is pizza known simply as “square.” (No need to call square pizza Sicilian because most people in Bensonhurst are.) Thousands upon thousands of square pies have been made exactly the same way since the 1950s: a thin layer of mozzarella is placed on the stretched raw dough before the tomato sauce is spread on top. Then the square is finished with a dusting of pecorino romano cheese. Once baked, slices are cut into smaller squares of light, delicate pizza that puffs and crisps in all the right places. Just the right amount of acidity from the tomatoes balances the slight pungency of the sheep’s milk cheese. A corner piece is especially prized.
Artisanal in real Brooklyn means making something the way your ancestors did back in the old country. Sustainable means doing it at a price that doesn’t prohibit those without trust funds.