Tucked away on a residential street in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood lies an unlikely local legend. To passersby, it looks like an ordinary pizzeria and ice cream parlor. But for over 80 years, L&B Spumoni Gardens has served as a culinary anchor and community treasure, dishing out its signature Sicilian-style square pizzas and Italian frozen desserts to generations of loyal patrons.
From its humble beginnings as a Depression-era horse cart doling out spumoni, L&B has endured various challenges to become one of the most famous and beloved eateries in New York City. How did this unassuming family business grow into such an iconic Brooklyn establishment? Let’s explore the rich history behind the restaurant’s origins, signature dishes, enduring charm, and hard-earned acclaim.
Ludovico Barbati Brings Spumoni to Brooklyn (1930s)
The story of L&B Spumoni Gardens starts in the 1930s with a young Italian immigrant named Ludovico Barbati. Hailing from a small town outside of Naples, Barbati arrived in New York in the throes of the Great Depression. He brought with him the old Sicilian family recipe for spumoni, a molded Italian ice cream made with layers of flavored ingredients.
Barbati first started selling his spumoni out of a horse-drawn cart, wheeling through Brooklyn neighborhoods like Gravesend and Bensonhurst. The sweet, crunchy frozen treat with pistachio, cherry and chocolate layers was a hit, providing a small taste of Italy to residents during hard times. The success of his mobile spumoni operation inspired Barbati to open a luncheonette on 86th Street in 1939 as a neighborhood spot to sell his iconic frozen confection.
Launching the Pizzeria in the 1940s
While Barbati’s spumoni remained popular, he sensed an opportunity to expand the modest luncheonette’s offerings. In the early 1940s, he enlisted the help of his eldest son and began training him in the art of pizza-making. After months of preparation, they opened an adjoining pizzeria in 1942.
Unlike typical round Neapolitan pies, L&B’s pizzas were Sicilian-style with a thick, chewy crust and tomato sauce layered over – not under – the mozzarella. Their signature “square” slices came from baking the pies in industrial steel pans, yielding a crispy base. The pizzeria’s coal-fired oven and family recipes resulted in a mouthwatering marriage of crust, cheese and sauce that Brooklyn had never tasted before.
From the start, L&B drew crowds for its winning combination of brick-oven pizza and Italian spumoni. In a time when New York pizza was still finding its footing, Barbati’s aim to recreate the Old World flavors of his hometown put L&B on the map.
The Secret Behind the Square Slice
So what sets L&B’s Sicilian-style square slice apart from the typical round Neapolitan pie? It comes down to a difference in dough, crust and baking technique. The dough has a touch of semolina flour, giving it a signature chewiness. The pan-baked crust cooks to a caramelized crispiness without drying out. And the sauce layered over the cheese infuses every bite with savory tomato flavor. This hands-on process and refusal to cut corners yields a pizza unlike any other in NYC.
Passing the Tradition Down Generations
By the 1960s, founder Ludovico Barbati was ready to retire and pass L&B Spumoni Gardens onto his sons. They took the reins with dedication to their father’s vision and faithfulness to the homemade recipes that made L&B so special. Keeping food quality high and staying true to tradition has allowed the pizzeria to retain its signature flavors through the years.
Today, the restaurant remains in the family and is currently operated by Ludovico Barbati’s grandchildren and great grandchildren. The fourth generation continues using time-honored techniques like hand-grating the mozzarella daily and preparing the pizza dough in small batches. Through their commitment to generational stewardship, the Barbatis have made L&B a Brooklyn dining destination for over 80 years.
The Barbati Family’s Impact on Brooklyn’s Italian-American Community
For Brooklyn’s Italian-American families, L&B represents much more than a favorite pizza place. The Barbati family has become pillars of the community, supporting Italian cultural clubs and churches over the decades. Their restaurant anchors the neighborhood but also provides a familiar taste of home – both through their food and presence as immigrant success story.
Withstanding Challenges and Carrying on Legacy
Despite its esteemed reputation, L&B Spumoni Gardens hasn’t been without its share of adversity. In 2009, a fire devastated the pizzeria, leaving only its walls standing. Yet in a testament to Brooklyn’s love of L&B, the restaurant rebuilt and reopened after just a few months. The outpouring of community support proved that their loyal customers wouldn’t let the neighborhood icon fade away.
In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a temporary closure of the restaurant’s indoor dining. Once again, L&B demonstrated resilience by ramping up takeout and delivery to meet their customers’ needs. Their continued service through 86 years of ups and downs shows an adaptable spirit and deep-rooted connection to the community.
How Has L&B Adapted Over the Decades?
While staying true to family recipes, L&B has evolved with the times when necessary. They expanded menu offerings beyond strictly pizza and spumoni to include classic Italian dishes. Delivery and online ordering have made enjoying their food more convenient. And specials like vodka pizza bring new twists to old favorites. Most importantly, L&B upholds time-honored tradition while showing flexibility to changing customer preferences.
Signature Menu Offerings
Of course, the main attractions that have made L&B famous are still their traditional square pizzas and spumoni. Their most popular pizza is the classic Sicilian with thick, crispy crust and just the right ratio of cheese to sauce. There’s also the Grandma pie with a thinner, olive oil-kissed crust topped with bright San Marzano tomatoes. Along with these signatures, they offer round Neapolitan pies, white pizzas, and seasonal specialties like fresh tomato or vodka sauce.
On the dessert side, L&B continues churning its specialty Italian ice cream on-site. Their spumoni contains imported Italian pistachios, cherries and chocolate for authentic flavor in layers of creamy gelato. Traditional cannoli, sfogliatelle pastries, and other Italian sweets round out the menu for the perfect ending.
Spotlight: L&B’s Spumoni Varieties
While the traditional tri-colored spumoni with pistachio, cherry and chocolate remains the star, L&B has expanded their spumoni repertoire over the decades. Some creative flavors include:
- Nutella – Chocolate hazelnut gelato
- Amaretto – Almond gelato with crunchy amaretti cookie pieces
- Tiramisu – Ladyfingers and espresso-flavored mascarpone gelato
- Tartufo – Chocolate and vanilla gelato swirled with a cherry center
With both classic and inventive varieties, L&B delivers on providing Brooklyn’s best spumoni.
Dishing Out Acclaim as a NYC Icon
L&B Spumoni Gardens has earned a glowing reputation over the years, winning over food critics and casual diners alike. Their Sicilian-style pies have been dubbed “the quintessential Brooklyn slice” by the New York Times and Zagat guide. Food Network star Guy Fieri featured L&B on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives as a standout local spot. Beyond pizza, New York Magazine called their spumoni “the best in the borough.”
In a city with no shortage of pizzerias, L&B stands out for perfectly replicating the flavors of Sicily using family recipes. Their dedication and Brooklyn pride earned them a coveted James Beard American Classics Award in 2019 recognizing beloved regional restaurants. For those seeking an authentic taste of New York’s food heritage, L&B represents a must-try culinary landmark.
L&B’s Cameos in Pop Culture
A sign of an iconic eatery is making cameos in movies, TV and music. L&B has made appearances across pop culture, showing its status as a quintessential Brooklyn restaurant:
- Featured in the opening credits of Saturday Night Fever (1977)
- Briefly seen in a scene in Goodfellas (1990)
- Mentioned in lyrics by rappers Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey
- Served as a filming location for Netflix’s Daredevil series (2015)
From disco to hip hop, L&B continues captivating the public imagination.
The Future of L&B Spumoni Gardens
As L&B Spumoni Gardens celebrates over 80 years in business, their future looks bright. The fourth-generation owners remain committed to maintaining family ownership and honoring their heritage. Expanding delivery and online ordering improves accessibility for new and returning patrons citywide.
While growing in reputation, L&B stays grounded in its roots as a neighborhood pizzeria and bakery. The restaurant occupies a special place in Brooklyn’s culinary landscape – striking the right balance between old-world charm and modern convenience. For longtime regulars and first-timers, L&B promises many more years of serving their signature slices of quintessential New York pizza paired with a scoop of nostalgic spumoni.
L&B Spumoni Gardens’ journey from a Depression-era horse cart to one of New York’s most cherished restaurants reveals how a family’s dedication to tradition can resonate across decades. Their commitment to quality and community led to a pizzeria revered as a Brooklyn institution. After navigating challenges from fires to pandemics, L&B continues dishing out the flavors that make them so special.
At its heart, this modest 86th Street spot represents resilience, adaptation, and the enduring magic of a perfect slice of pizza. L&B stands as a testament to doing things right, staying true to roots, and earning a beloved place in New York food culture. While trends and tastes evolve, L&B Spumoni Gardens remains a delicious constant in an ever-changing city.