L&B Spumoni Gardens’ Notoriously Delicious Square Slice Deconstructed

07.09.12 David Lumb

L&B Spumoni Gardens, a Brooklyn mainstay for its sauce-above-cheese pizza, was drawn into recent court testimony for allegedly mob-related strife over sauce stolen by Staten Island-based pizzeria The Square. According to testimony from ex-mobster Anthony Russo, The Square purported to have “L&B-style” pizza and made out with the sacred sauce recipe. As good journalists, we at ANIMAL immediately started working to replicate that sauce.

L&B Spumoni Gardens has been around for so long, making slice after identical slice, that its uniformity has ingrained memories in generations of patrons. Shaky comparisons can be made to other locations that hawk their square Sicilians as similar–if not identical–to the L&B slice.

They’re not. We tried them.

We sampled these L&B imitators across three boroughs and believe that our recipe is as close as you’ll get to L&B’s slice without going through their garbage. (Which is illegal, kids!) But in our investigation, we turned up a bit more about the construction of the mythical L&B slice–namely, that the fetishization of the sauce ignores 95% of the slice’s glory.

I enlisted James Durazzo, former line cook at Mile End Delicatessen and lifetime New Yorker (“I’ve eaten and cooked my way around this city”), who grew up with the L&B slice. He navigates the pizza world of the five boroughs and constructed his own version of the L&B earlier this year as an homage to the classic slice.

“They used to be bigger,” he says.

But otherwise, the slice is the same from his first bite at ten years old. Durazzo goes down the ingredients like he’s mustering divisions for a flavor invasion: the carmelized crust forming a crispy backbone, dense dough with more water for more air bubbles, a low-moisture cheese under the sauce to partially fuse with the dough, San Marzano tomatoes with oregano for sweetness, olive oil, and salty Pecorino Romano to balance out the sweet. Cook in a rectangular pan. Serve for $2.25. Repeat, endlessly, all day, every day.

In some circles, the square slice is known as an “Upside-Down Slice” to differentiate it from a standard Sicilian slice (with cheese atop of the sauce, as God intended). But a lot of them – especially the newer pizzerias – can’t hope to imitate L&B’s slice, Durazzo says. Not without L&B’s pans – big squares of steel turned black by decades of olive oil cooked into the pans (that’s where the “carmelized” color on the pizza’s bottom comes from). Flavor has literally been baked into the pan.

So where does that leave The Square? Dry. Very dry.

Mr. Durazzo and I hopped down to Staten Island to test the contender…and found it lacking. Observe the difference: fewer air bubbles (reduced pillowy-ness) in the dough, more rigidly crispy bottom, and a stiff, dry crust. My companion swore that the sauce was less sweet and there was a marked absence of oregano, but I was so offended by the dry crunch that I didn’t notice.

So we have a slice that, when casually observed, is identical to the famed L&B slice. And then The Square posted a sign saying it sold L&B-style pizza. No wonder they were targeted by L&B brand-protecting individuals (according to the Daily News)!

“There’s a lotta places that write “L&B Style” on their stores,” says Scott Wiener, founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours.

Oh. Wait–other places are making (or attempting to make) the same slice? Why haven’t they been hassled for copying the pizza?

“The thing with these places–the way L&B makes it is really unique,” Wiener said.

Wiener’s expertise spans years and miles of borough pizza–and that was before he quit his full-time audio production gig at 26 to lead tours across the boroughs, on foot and within a yellow school bus. Scott felt especially qualified to comment on the L&B debacle as he had a slice he’d bought the day before in his freezer, preserved half-jokingly against the apocalypse with plastic wrap and type/date sharpied on the protective outer aluminum foil.

In his professional opinion: “[L&B is] definitely a Sicilian (which must be cooked in a square or rectangular pan) and are sometimes baked twice,” though the L&B is only baked once. Why? Output. There are twelve ovens in L&B, theorizes Wiener, and each have an extra rack in the middle for a total of 4-6 pies cooked per oven. That’s 48-72 pies at once–and if you’ve ever had to powder your nose at L&B, you’ve followed the signs into the back of the kitchen and walked right past the wheeled racks that hold dozens of cooling pies and pans full of dough. If it takes ten minutes for each prepared pie to cook, that’s hundreds of pies per hour.

Wiener tried The Square a couple months ago, though he caveats his description with an admission that it was the VERY last warm slice before they shut their doors: it wasn’t that amazing, going lighter on the sauce and less bunchy in the middle. (Bunchy? Yeah–the bunches of bread form networks that allow air to stretch the dough up while retaining chewyness).

If Wiener has a bone to pick with anything in the Sicilian square mythos, it’s that every slice has an equally rose-tinted origin recipe from the Old Country. “They just don’t call it pizza there.” The traditional analogues in Sicily–sfincione from Palermo and, to a degree, scaccate from Catania–were made more frequently in homes than the triangular Neapolitan style because the square shape easily fit in a home oven.

Naturally, I spoke to Benito Davi, founder of Underground Pizza on Hanover street, about the Sicilian origins of his upside-down slice. Davi’s family immigrated from Sicily when he was 10 and his mother brought the upside-down recipe with her; Davi opened Underground Pizza at its first location in 1982 and has been serving the slice there ever since. His motto: use fresh ingredients. Always.
“If I don’t eat it, I don’t sell it,” Davi says.

Which requires some curious business timelines, like selling out of the upside-down slice by 2 p.m. every day. If there isn’t reliable demand after the Wall Street lunch rush, Davi won’t make more – a supply/demand schedule he’s had to pay careful attention to, since he’s the only one in the shop who knows the sauce recipe. This leads to dramatic – but, I am assured, essential – methods to preserve sauce secrecy, like loading up ziploc bags of the sauce in advance of any trip for his staff to use.

“I could tell you the recipe, sure. But will I? No.”

Which is kind of irrelevant, Davi says.

“I don’t think you can steal a recipe. We all have the same ingredients,” Davi says, but the pizzas are different across the five boroughs. He confirmed the use of pecorino cheese in his pizza and sugar (he wouldn’t say how much) to balance out the acidity of his sauce’s tomatoes.

Which brings us back to The Square’s “stolen” sauce recipe. Pizza aficionado James Durazzo maintains that L&B food mills some raw San Marzano tomatoes and adds oregano. NY pizza world tour guide Scott Wiener believes that the sauce is cooked using what may or may not be San Marzano tomatoes (the term being diluted over the years as Italian corruption has lead to shifty documentation of tomato quality). Thirty-year pizzeria owner Benito Davi dismisses the concept of sauce replication from ingredient lists.

Undaunted, Animal cooks on. We have narrowed down what is, ideally, a replica of Brooklyn pizza legend.

Without further ado: our replica of the L&B Spumoni Gardens slice. A special note: we used a Non-Stick Sicilian Pizza Pan, 1” deep, purchased at Bari Equipment in the Bowery (a known pizzeria supplier). Get a pan, ideally steel (aluminum does not cook uniformly), ideally used to cook decades of pizza.

4 cups King Arthur bread flour
1-1½ cups lukewarm water
1 packet active dry yeast
1 tsp. sugar
2 salted fresh mozzarella balls (we bought ours from Caputo’s Fine Foods)
1 tbsp. dried Sicilian Oregano
1 quart-sized can San Marzano tomatoes or similar D.O.P.-approved brand (we used Vanita)
1 can Scalfani tomato puree
½ tsp. fine sea salt
½ tsp. finely milled black pepper
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese

1-3 days before: let the dough sit for at least a day (ideally, three) – the dough will ferment and bacteria will add important flavor.
1+ hour before: coat the pan with olive oil and work the dough with fingertips to fill the pan. Let dough sit and naturally ooze into corners and fill pan.

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Optional: put mozzarella into freezer until firm to enable easier slicing. If using a pizza stone, place it on the bottom rack and preheat it to 425 degrees for 40 minutes – leave it at this temperature
2. Drain whey from mozzarella in a strainer, then slice thinly (less than ¼”) and evenly spread cheese on dough in pan
3. Use a food mill to grind the San Marzano tomatoes into a bowl to make sweet, sweet sauce. Add Scalfani tomato puree, oregano, pepper, and sea salt into sauce. Mix well.
4. Spread sauce evenly over cheese, allowing it to creep up on edge of dough.
5. Sprinkle Pecorino Romano cheese on top, including edges of crust beyond sauce. Dash olive oil on sauce in a cross-hatch formation.
6. Cook for 10-12 minutes on pizza stone, rotating after 5 minutes. Check bottom for even spread of carmelization/browning – if satisfactory, move pan to top rack for additional 5-10 minutes.
7. Let cool for 20 minutes. Cut in squares and serve the corner to your favorite person. Chumps get the middle no-man’s-land slice.