There were 23 Italian restaurants on our list of 99 Essential Restaurants® in Brooklyn, and nine of those were pizzerias. That could make Italian Kings County’s official fare — and pizza its official dish. Here are the nine places where you can get an essential pie; consider this a guide to the most exalted pizza in the borough.
Di Fara Pizza, 1424 Avenue J, 718-258-1367
Half a century ago, Domenico DeMarco opened the doors to Di Fara Pizza, a petite Midwood pizzeria in an unassuming corner storefront where Avenue J and East 15th Street intersect. New York’s patron saint of basil-snipping works with enlightened Zen, kneading dough into imperfect shapes and taming the flames that roil beneath his metallic beast of an oven. This is quintessential Brooklyn (and New York City) pizza with blistered crust; rounds (or “regular,” here) are made from mild, slightly yeasty dough, while squares are chewy and thicker. The winning formula for Di Fara’s pies: mozzarella, a sprinkling of grated hard cheese, and lively San Marzano tomato sauce. But it’s the ritual of it all that’s captivated generations of New Yorkers and world-traveling pizza fans; the way DeMarco tends to each pie, anointing it with herbs, more grated cheese, and a generous drizzle of olive oil. All this folklore and fanfare has led to serious waits during primetime hours and occasional closures due to private parties. You can always get there early and join numerous others waiting for DeMarco (and the five of his seven children who run the shop with him) to unlock the doors. Our favorite power move, however, is to place a pizza order at Di Fara and walk around the corner to sibling Italian comfort food restaurant MD Kitchen. Because what makes a two-hour wait for bread, sauce, and cheese better? Shrimp parmigiana heroes.
Franny’s, 348 Flatbush Avenue, 718-230-0221
Francine Stephens and Andrew Feinberg, the couple who opened Franny’s more than a decade ago, met at Savoy, Peter Hoffman’s now closed Soho temple of greenmarket cooking. There they discovered a mutual love for Italian food and dovetailing perspectives on sustainable agriculture. And so they knew that when they eventually opened a restaurant together, it would showcase those interests. At the suggestion of a family member, they settled on pizza — despite the fact that “I’d never cooked pizza before,” says Feinberg. No matter. Soon the kitchen was turning out blistered pies painted with tangy marinara and topped with fresh mozzarella that easily competed with the best pizzas in the city, and people were coming in droves, clogging the entryway of their small shop with hours-long waits. (Though Franny’s has since expanded into bigger digs down the street, the wait has followed.) Beyond turning out good pizza, Feinberg and Stephens were early adopters of the farm-to-table mantra that has become ubiquitous in our restaurant industry: They vowed from the beginning to be transparent about where all of their ingredients and supplies come from, and they led by example in developing relationships with Greenmarket purveyors. Above all, they are strong believers in restaurants being an integral part of their community, and they continue to push Franny’s to be what makes it so charming: the ultimate neighborhood restaurant.
Juliana’s, 19 Old Fulton Street, 718-596-6700
Patsy Grimaldi made pizza for more than 60 years, first at Patsy’s Pizza in Harlem under his uncle, then at some other NYC coal-fired pizzerias, and finally at Grimaldi’s, the restaurant he opened with his wife, Carol, on Old Fulton Street in DUMBO in 1990. After building an international following for that parlor, the owner was ready to retire, and in 1999 he sold the business, brand, and name. A few years later, though, Grimaldi became distressed by the legacy of his coal-fired pizzeria, and so he began to toy with the idea of getting back into the business. When Grimaldi’s was evicted from its original home, Grimaldi partnered with Matthew Grogan, a longtime fan and former Wall Street warrior, and came out of retirement to reclaim the address — and the original coal-fired oven. After the space went through a major renovation — everything had to be replaced, refurbished, or rebuilt — they opened Juliana’s in December 2012. They’ve added classic pasta dishes, soups, salads, desserts, and egg creams to the menu, and they’ve upgraded the wine list and added draft beer to account for the neighborhood’s changing tastes. But the team hasn’t broken from the original vision at Grimaldi’s: They’re obsessively focused on preserving a slice of New York pizza history. “We are trying to redefine what authentic New York–style pizza is,” says Grogan. “We’re not trying to be Neapolitan, Roman, Sicilian — it’s New York–style pizza, the way it was introduced in the early twentieth century.” The coal-fired oven turns out pies built on crisp and airy crusts with the yeasty complexity of fresh-baked bread. For the margherita, which remains the signature pizza here, the mozzarella is soft and creamy, the sauce vibrant and piercing, the basil fresh and verdant. All flavors come into focus with a last-minute hit of salt, applied after the pie comes out of the oven and rests, bubbling, on the pass.
L&B Spumoni Gardens, 2725 86th Street, 718-449-1230
Sprawled out over multiple buildings and fenced-in areas, Brooklyn’s most famous Italian-American dining complex is part ice cream parlor, part pizzeria, with a broader Italian restaurant thrown in for good measure. Founded in 1939, L&B Spumoni Gardens remains in the care of the Barbati family, whose patriarch immigrated from Italy and set up shop in Gravesend to peddle his frozen treats. The trailblazing pizza operation came a decade later, and chief among its offerings are enormous trays of square Sicilian pies, sold in whole sheets or by the slice. They’re wholly unique among the New York pizzas, the dough left chewy and dense, the cheese melted directly onto the bread and smothered in sweet tomato sauce. “Spumoni” refers to a frozen dessert that’s less ice cream than sherbet, a mix of candied fruit-studded vanilla, chocolate, and nut-filled pistachio with an almost grainy quality. While the two casual operations are L&B’s real draw — the place gets packed and boisterous whenever the weather’s halfway decent — don’t miss out on the sit-down restaurant, which expands on its neighbors’ streamlined menus with a roster of Southern Italian classics.
Lucali, 575 Henry Street, 718-858-4086
Here is how you approach a meal at Lucali: Put your name on the list and then wander down the street to pick out a bottle of wine — you’re going to need to kill some time before you get a table, and the restaurant is BYOB. Consider pairing your pizza with something special — these pies deserve it. Former marble fabricator and longtime Carroll Gardens resident Mark Iacono opened Lucali on a residential street in 2006, teaching himself to make pizza in order to save a candy shop he’d loved throughout his youth. He built everything in the space, including the wood-burning oven. Today, as it did nearly ten years ago, the restaurant makes and serves only three items: pizza, calzones, and meatballs. No antipasti. No salads. Not even white pizza. The pies here are Neapolitan, with a heavier focus on traditional New York style, and they come out of the oven slightly charred and smoky, with a super-crisp crust and a tangy marinara made from Iacono’s grandmother’s recipe. Calzones, filled with sweet ricotta, are a sleeper item — do not forgo them when you visit. Toppings are basic: pepperoni, hot peppers, grilled artichoke hearts, et cetera. Nothing at Lucali is overcomplicated, but everything is dialed in and delicious. Accept your spot in line and concentrate on choosing a good bottle.
Paulie Gee’s, 60 Greenpoint Avenue, 347-987-3747
Paul Giannone, a/k/a Paulie Gee, says one of his favorite memories at his eponymous Greenpoint pizzeria, Paulie Gee’s, was “when Danny Meyer came in to the restaurant with his family on a Saturday night at 8 p.m. and waited 90 minutes for a table. Twice. The second time was the biggest compliment paid to me.” It should be noted that waiting for a table is actually pleasant here — you drink beers handed down from the abnormally high bar, enjoy the carefully curated music selection, and chat with your neighbors. But Meyer’s willingness to stick it out twice — that’s confirmation that Giannone’s parlor, which opened in 2010, holds its own among the Brooklyn pizza institutions the owner has long worshipped. Easing into retirement from a career in IT, Giannone resolved to open a pizzeria. To that end, he built a pizza oven in his garden and commenced to study the craft. “I used it to practice, experiment, and market myself to pizza enthusiasts/bloggers and potential investors,” he says. Today you’re likely to find him working the dining room and maybe even delivering your cheekily named pie, its blistered crust paved with tangy tomato sauce and browned mozzarella and topped with one of dozens of combinations of ingredients — like spicy soppressata and Mike’s Hot Honey (the “Hellboy”), or braised fennel, anisette cream, and guanciale (“Anise and Anephew”). His philosophy, Giannone says, is to “offer a neighborhood dining experience, not a box with pizza in it.”
Roberta’s, 261 Moore Street, 718-417-1118
Pioneering Bushwick pizzeria Roberta’s is every bit as electric as it was in 2008, when owners Chris Parachini, Brandon Hoy, and chef Carlo Mirarchi opened this hippie-ster culinary compound with no gas, no heat, and no hot water. These days the place frequently commands two-plus hours of patient toe-tapping from skinny-jean-wearing yeast freaks. Delivery and takeout operations now exist to smooth the passage of time, but you should take your ass outside for a beer in Roberta’s backyard, a magical place where gardens grow, craned-in shipping containers hide flourishing internet radio stations, and rooftop beehives foster buzzy NIMBYs who get aggressive with the gentrifying locals. Once seated, pizza puns abound, like the “Millennium Falco,” pizzaiolo Anthony Falco’s namesake pie topped with tomato, Parmesan, pork sausage, onions, basil, and chile. Roberta’s is about so much more than its excellent Neapolitan-on-acid experiments, though. Mirarchi fills the rest of his casual menu with expressive New American plates that celebrate seasonal produce in innovative ways. Such experimentation also fuels outgrowth Blanca, a progressive twelve-seat tasting counter where the chef and his team obsessively execute twenty-plus-course menus of quizzical plates like agnolotti with plankton and pine-nut sauce. Here, as at Roberta’s, the vibe couldn’t be more relaxed, with crackly vinyl tunes and pleated leather seating. The food at both places, though, demands reverential attention.
Saraghina, 435 Halsey Street, 718-574-0010
Once-remote Bedford-Stuyvesant, which mixes city grit with its picturesque brownstones, is fast becoming a neighborhood for new families, recent young transplants, and hip city dwellers after more space. And over the past five years, a number of restaurants have moved in to capitalize on the dining habits of these new inhabitants. One of the first was Saraghina, a pizzeria Edoardo Mantelli and Massimiliano Nanni opened in 2009 (Nanni has since exited the venture) that has also sprouted a connected bakery. Mantelli obsessed over pizza before going into the business, and he learned to make pies from Luzzo’s Michele Iuliano. He freely admits he’s not trying to “reinvent the pizza wheel”; rather, he’s turning out solid Neapolitan pies, some swiped with the traditional tomato sauce and coated in bubbling mozzarella, others topped with seasonal ingredients, especially if they appear on the specials list. Much has been made of that specials list over the years, for it offers a number of non-pizza dishes that often are superb. Look for pastas, roasted vegetables, and a whole fish cooked in the same wood-burning oven as the pizzas until its skin crackles. Assuming it’s warm outside, the most pleasant place to find yourself at Saraghina is in the back garden, a charming oasis sequestered from the rest of the world. At brunch locals fill the breezy dining room and drink excellent bloody marys, built with house-made mix and garnished with a salad’s worth of house-made pickles. Any other time of day, consider sticking to the house wine, a liter of which will run you just $27.
Totonno Pizzeria Napolitana, 1524 Neptune Avenue, 718-372-8606
A decade is a drop in the bucket for Coney Island landmark Totonno Pizzeria Napolitana, a beloved slice of historic New York City that has risen from the ashes twice in the past ten years — first from a 2009 fire, then from Hurricane Sandy. Founder Antonio “Totonno” Pero brought his yeast-risen magic to South Brooklyn in 1924 after working at New York’s first pizzeria, Lombardi’s in Little Italy. “My grandfather Totonno was the first pizzaiolo in America,” says Antoinette Balzano, who now helps run Totonno. “He initiated making pizzas at Lombardi’s — Lombardi’s was a grocery store — which became the first licensed pizzeria in America, because of Totonno.” Ninety years later, the brand has expanded to Manhattan, but none of the other locations holds a candle to the original, its black-and-white-checkered floor as recognizable as the iconic pies for which it is known. What may be the most seasoned coal-fired oven in town cooks up char-speckled crusts sturdy enough to support generous layers of sweet, herbaceous tomato sauce and melted fresh mozzarella. Totonno doesn’t sell by the slice — the better to preserve the integrity of the product. Pizzaiolos prep and fire pies for as long as there’s dough available, which for us occasionally means confronting a locked door. But generations of New Yorkers haven’t minded, and neither should you.