A relic in the mold of Sal and Carmine, Luigi's Pizza has been elevating the art of the neighborhood slice since 1973. The joint itself is essentially a den of pizza. Inside, a single counter surface is warmed by faded and dated overhead lamps. A nook at the back of the room offers just enough space for two families to split a pie, and the stacks of takeaway boxes sitting atop the pizza oven are parted to ensure a direct line of sight to the house television from wherever a customer happens to sit.
Business is gruff but warm, and it seems like someone from the neighborhood is always lounging with the staff as I look over the limited choices of pie on display. Gio, son of Luigi and main man at the oven, is a bit of a local hero, praised for his enthusiasm and readiness to educate his customers in the ways of the slice.
The fact that most of Luigi's pies come out above average, speaks for the dedication of this pizzeria. Still, the fresh mozzarella ($2.75) comes out on top with pocket change to spare. The crust of Luigi's number one is taut, its crunchy, uneven bottom yielding to a porous, chewy upper layer. Tiny bubbles pepper its air-pocketed edge, which shatters with the perfect crunch before giving way to a savory chew.
Unwilling to skimp, Luigi's drapes a full blanket of tender, fresh mozz across a generous coating of tangy sauce. Each thick dollop of cheese melts into the next, and all are sprinkled with a homemade basil-based pesto, lending the final product an extra note of flavor and a beautiful splash of color.
It's not transcendent enough to spawn a national fan base, but distinguished slices like this make it easy to tell to draw the line between great pizza and so much cheesy bread. Every time I pay a visit, I hope that the Luigis of the world will be around for a long time to show their neighborhoods what it means to set a standard.
686 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11215 (20th/21st; map) 718-499-3857