05 May 2006

Big Italy

The other day I hopped the D train to Bensonhurst—a neighborhood I'm ashamed to say I've never visited in 18 years of Gotham habitation—and learned a few things about one of the city's most notorious Little Italies. For one thing, it's not so little. I walked for miles along 86th Street under the elevated tracks before reaching my lunchtime destination, L & B Spumoni Gardens. And another thing: it's not so Italian.

Given the nabe's tough reputation, I half expected to be hit in the back of the knees with a lead pipe for just stepping off the train. But nary a short-haired, wide-bellied yoot harassed me. Why, it was a few blocks before I could even locate an Italian business. There were a lot of Chinese stores, quite a few Polish storefronts, and many a Korean grocer. Even a few lonely Kosher establishments. But the Italian places started to trickle in—a restaurant there, a bakery here, as well as some genuinely authentic Rome-style bars, with zinc counters, fine espresso, a table of goombahs in the corner and a back room for card playing and other "dealings." The area also boasted some gloriously antiquated signage dating from the 1930s to the 1960s.

But, to the purpose: the anomalous L & B Spumoni Gardens. To see this place, long heralded as one of the ur-Italian joints in the town, was my main purpose. The physical edifice is as odd as the its name. A low-slung brick edifice with a series of ordering windows, fronted by an old sign perched on a large pole and a couple dozen red-and-white picket tables, it could be a roadside drive-in in Anywhere, USA. Those who built it surely forgot that New York is a congested city with little elbow room. It's the kind of layout that would encourage hot shots to roll up in their flashy rides, leave the flivver idling and hop out for a quick slice and hello. I imagine the place is quite magical at night. It's made for Chinese lanterns.

You can order a lot of things here, but two items loom large: the square, Sicilian slices and the spumoni. You go up to one window to order one, a different window to order the other. As far as I could tell, you can not venture inside to eat your slice, but must take it to a picnic table. (There is some "elegant" dining off another area serving up heros and "hot plates," but it didn't seem to be open for business to anyone other than a quartet of clannish MTA workers.)

The slice is justifiable famous. Light and crisp for it size, with a savory tomato sauce and just a smattering of parmesan. It's all the goodfellas around me were eating. I had two. I should have had spumoni afterward, but, what can I say: I wasn't hungry for ice cream.

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