After two years of preparation, Carroll Gardens newcomer Lucali opened, somewhat fittingly, on Columbus Day. Not long after, the Chowhounders started yapping about it, with most barking their approval. At the urging of Slice reader Mark H., I headed over last night to see what all the fuss was about.
The joint is the creation of Mark Iacono and takes the place of a soda fountain once known for making some of the last real egg creams in Brooklyn. Locals can take comfort, however, in the fact that Mr. Iacono was raised in the neighborhood and still lives around the corner. Not only that, but much of the equipmentincluding the espresso machinecomes from Leonardo's Pizza, which was sadly replaced by a Dunkin' Donuts around this time last year. The recipes, too, are from the neighborhood, having come from Mr. Iacono's grandma and aunts.
The space, much of it built out by Mr. Iacono himself, feels like a large homey kitchen that, oh, just happens to have a pizza oven in it. Mr. Iacono prepares his pies in full view of the dining room on a marble-top work table. He tops them with a fresh-tasting sauce made from canned San Marzano tomatoes; a cheese combo of regular fresh and imported buffalo mozzarellas and a generous dusting of just-grated grana padano. He adds to that a judicious bit of garlic and basil before sliding his pies into his self-built gas-assisted wood-fired oven. The oven, he estimates, hovers around 800 degrees, and it cooks the pies in somewhere between two to four minutes, depending on the heat. "I've got a friend coming in with a thermometer gun to take readings," Mr. Iacono said.
Given the fact that my first pie of the evening came out badly burned, such a step might be necessarythat or a bit more time mapping the oven's hotspots through trial and error. Still, the 1.5 slices of pie No. 1, that were edible showed great potential, and, after I pointed out the burned crust (above left), Mr. Iacono was more than happy to make a replacement.
Pie No. 2 was excellent, exhibiting a knowing balance among crust, sauce, and cheese. Garlic and basil were present but not overpowering. The crust was moderately charred here and there, looking for all the world like it had come out of one of the city's hallowed coal-oven places; it had an airy hole structure, nice crispness, and a pleasant just-right level of chewiness.
The buffalo mozz and grana padano are imported from Italy through cheesemakers Lioni Latticini, also the source for the domestic regular fresh mozz. If this cheese combination sounds like that used by Dom DeMarco at Di Fara, the similarity is intentional. "He's my pizza inspiration," Mr. Iacono said. "I wouldn't be doing this if it weren't for him." The one major difference in the blend is that Lucali uses fresh regular mozzarella instead of Grande's aged mozz. "The Grande cheese that Dom uses is a pizza cheese. My oven's too hot; it would burn it, so I have to use fresh mozzarella," he said.
Also like Di Fara, the pies get a nice pour of olive oilbut after they exit the oven. Other than that, not much else dresses the pizza here. Topping choices are few and last night included fresh mushrooms, anchovies, bell peppers, and beef pepperoni (from Esposito & Sons Pork Store).
All that said, the pizza at Lucali does not taste as much like Di Fara as it does one of the coal-oven biggies, despite Mr. Iacono's clear veneration of the Dominator. The crust is much thinner than Mr. Demarco's and is not as chewy, and the grana padano does not play as prominent a role in the mixture of flavors. It is more an homage to the master than a slavish attempt to copy him. Where Mr. Iacono does strive to emulate Mr. Demarco is in his pizzamaking philosophy and in his clear love for the dishhe will be the sole pizzaiolo at Lucali, and the place will sink or swim based on his skill alone.
Based on the quality of my second pie, I'm betting the joint will thrive, and I strongly recommend it. Keep in mind if you go, however, that the restaurant is in its "soft opening" stage as of this writing (grand opening is slated for November 1) and that Mr. Iacono is still testing dough mixtures and getting a feel for the oven. Last night was a slow one for Lucali. Iacono should savor it, as I think he'll be very busy very soon.
Address: 575 Henry Street, Brooklyn NY 11231; Carroll Gardens, b/n Carroll Street and First Place [map]
Getting There: F train to Carroll Street Station; walk west to Henry; Lucali is on east side of street, about one-fourth block south of Carroll
Cost: Plain pies (14-inch), $17; calzones, $7; cash only
The Skinny: Using a gas-assisted wood-fired oven that he built himself, owner-pizzaiolo Mark Iacono lovingly crafts pies inspired by legendary Di Fara proprietor Dom DeMarcowith a similar high-quality three-cheese blend and the signature pour of olive oil.