What is it about Lucali’s that causes lines of people to queue up every evening in the hopes of getting a table? There are thousands of great pizza places in New York City that will serve you a slice in under 10 minutes, so why do we find ourselves drawn to a restaurant that requires us to wait outside for 2 hours before getting a table? Is it because we believe the food to be exceptional? Are we attracted by a celebrity fan base? Or perhaps fuelled by some primal longing to conform? At Lucali, our desire to eat there is sparked by a combination of all three. Yes, the pizza is in a league of its own. Yes, Jay-Z and Beyoncé have eaten there. And yes, the way that our friends talk about eating there gives us a severe bout of FOMO.
There’s something else, though. For a restaurant to have so much hype and not be a disappointment, the physical space has to have an ineffable allure that pulls on your heartstrings like weathered hands on pizza dough. This is what Lucali has.
Owner Mark Iacono views the success of his pizzeria with a sort of baffled pride. With no culinary skills and not so much as a weekend trip to Rome to account for his ability to create one of the best pizzas in the city, it almost seems like the self-proclaimed “accidental pizzaiolo” just woke up one day and decided to open a pizzeria. The real story is that he took over the lease of the building from the owner of the candy store that used to occupy the space and which he used to visit as a child with his father. He then spent two and a half years creating what is now a much-loved neighbourhood pizza place.
Is that the key to its charm? Is it Iacono’s tangible love for Caroll Gardens, where he has lived all his life, that draws the crowds? The ten-table restaurant does have the feel of a living memorial to the old Brooklyn, particularly as it is described by Mark himself, who looks back fondly on memories of local and unpretentious family restaurants, now replaced by speciality coffee shops and speakeasy bars. Far from being stuck in the past however, Lucali’s cosy yet industrial aesthetic displays all the features of a hipster pizza joint, with its open kitchen, exposed brick and low lighting. Nonetheless, it still glows with a soul-warming authenticity.
Let’s move onto the pizza, whose allure needs little exploration. Lucali’s gets it right for one simple reason: it understands that a pizza is only as good as the sum of its parts. Iacono may not be a trained chef, but he knows enough about food to ensure that every pizza that comes out of his wood-fired oven reaches a level of unforeseen excellence brought about in the careful draping of homemade tomato sauce and a mix of three cheeses atop hand-rolled dough, all finished off with a fragrant handful of scattered basil leaves. The only other option on the menu, the calzone, is a hot pocket of ricotta-filled dough that makes you want to curl up inside it for a nap, blanketing yourself in a soothing ladleful of the tomato sauce that comes alongside it.
I cannot tell you exactly what it is that draws us to Lucali’s. I can only say that there is a wonderful but abstract quality that arises from the combination of great pizza and an inviting location that feels like home. Perhaps the secret is in the small smile of Mark Iacono, sitting outside his restaurant in his beloved neighbourhood, smoking a Marlboro red and thinking back to his childhood. It is wonderful to see how obviously happy he is in the knowledge that he has managed to create a place with all the old charm of the Caroll Street he loves so dearly. At Lucali, people rarely complain about the length of the wait for a table because once they get inside they are swept away by the infectious excitement of the charming pizzaiolo who still feels, upon entering his own restaurant, like a kid in a candy store.
Photo: Adam Kuban on Flickr