Walk into any pizzeria in New York City, with a few well-known exceptions, and you can order with your eyes closed: A thin-crust cheese slice is inevitable, a Sicilian or grandma slice is likely, an all-cheese white pie is probable. There will definitely be pepperoni, and because many owners buy from the same suppliers, the pepperoni you get in the Bronx this week will not be noticeably different from the pepperoni you had in Queens last week.
Most pizzerias are like cover bands. Some rock harder than others, but they play the same standards. Every so often, though, one of those bands begins to write its own songs.
That was the story of Di Fara Pizza in Midwood, which appeared to be a street-corner slice joint but was so punctilious about ingredients and proportions that it kicked off a slice-joint renaissance around New York City. Now it seems to be the story of Lucia Pizza of Avenue X, a four-month-old shop in Sheepshead Bay.
You could easily mistake Lucia for an ordinary Brooklyn slice joint that’s been around forever, if not for the fresh paint on the two signs above the door – one shows the crossed flags of Italy and the United States; the other invites customers to “Come by & pick up your pie!”
About 20 seats are scattered around a simple dining room. Opposite the door is the kitchen, with classic Bakers Pride gas ovens in stainless steel and cardboard pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling. Built into the counter at knee level is a self-service beverage refrigerator whose inventory suggests that somebody at Lucia is fond of cherry soda.
But you know that Lucia has strayed from the slice-shop template when you step up to the counter and are handed the “spring menu.” It is roughly twice as long as the skeletal “winter welcoming menu” that was in effect when the place first opened. In truth, the longer list is still somewhat aspirational. When I tried ordering the cudduruni, a Sicilian flatbread, I was told, “We’re not ready to serve that one yet.”
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Aside from this bit of vaporware, the menu’s pleasures are real. One white pie, the salsiccia, is spread with smooth white islands of whipped ricotta surrounded by pork sausage that’s been roasted into crisp brown pebbles – not the usual gray marbles that roll off the crust when you pick it up. Scattered over this are fresh parsley and sweet red onions shaved thin enough to wilt in the oven. Bits of oil-cured Calabrian chiles are spooned over the surface, too, though you may not notice them until their heat makes your eyes go wide.
A variation on the theme of pork and peppers occurs in the caramelle piccanti pie. This is built on the standard bed of tomato sauce and shredded mozzarella. Their temperature is raised by pickled cherry peppers and a few squeezes of Mike’s Hot Honey, a bottle of which is kept on the counter for customers to apply at their own discretion. The pork is in the form of small pepperoni slices that have become concave, like contact lenses, during baking.
Pizza cognoscenti will recognize these as “roni cups,” a hallmark of neoclassical slice shops such as Paulie Gee’s, Mama’s Too and other pizzerias in west Brooklyn and Manhattan. Though the cups’ reputation has been spreading, it’s still a minor surprise to find them pooled with spicy orange oil a few blocks from the Belt Parkway.
Sheepshead Bay isn’t exactly a stronghold of clam pizza, either, but Lucia could make it one. On Fridays, Lucia bakes a clam pie that is distinct from the New Haven version. In Connecticut, the clams are laid down directly on the dough, but Lucia rests them on a bed of melted mozzarella. New Haven custom also demands raw garlic; in Sheepshead Bay the garlic is poached in olive oil until golden, then simmered quickly with chopped fresh cherrystones, white wine and butter. This sauce is essentially what gets tossed with linguine at a hundred Italian restaurants around town. It makes a gently comforting pizza, even if it is no match for the naked power of the pies at Zuppardi’s Apizza.
Lucia is a new pizzeria, still finding its way. I hope eventually something can be done about the crust. It has been engineered for crispness, and it is satisfying to bite. It is less satisfying to chew; the flavor is flat and bland, without the depth that the best pizzerias induce in their dough.
I imagine the dough is being tinkered with, given all the other signs that Lucia is not content filling its kitchen with products bought in closeout sales at Acme Pizza Supply. The tomato sauce tastes fresh and bright, not bitter or sugary. Fresh white mushrooms are cooked and cooked until they taste dark and meaty. That whipped ricotta really is good. Then there are the torn basil leaves tossed on the pies when they leave the oven, along with fine threads of grated pecorino. These are the touches that lift up even the simplest items at Lucia, like the classic New York slice and the margherita, with its fresh mozzarella arranged over the sauce in concentric rings.
The author of all these pies is Salvatore Carlino, Lucia’s owner. He grew up in this neighborhood of squat brick rowhouses and wide back alleys. For more than 40 years, his parents ran Papa Leone, an Italian restaurant attached to a pizzeria on the main drag in nearby Manhattan Beach, where he used to help out. The Papa Leone at Lucia is a vodka-sauce pie made from his father’s recipe.
Under the name P.leone, Mr. Carlino has another career as a musician, producer and DJ (He has said that his music sounds “like a Brooklyn bound Q train, packed and with loads of delays. A bit inconvenient but fun.”) He was working in Berlin until the pandemic forced him to move back home to Brooklyn.
With no clubs to play, he filled his hours baking pizza in an outdoor oven. The caramelle piccanti was born in his backyard. One day a vacant restaurant space appeared on Avenue X. He leased it and started a new project: the old family tune, remixed.
What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.