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L&B Spumoni Gardens & Galleria Umberto pizzas (plus sfincione)
Today’s post and recipes are a tribute to two of my favorite pizza joints, Brooklyn’s L&B Spumoni Gardens and Boston’s Galleria Umberto. While both specialize in what we collectively consider Sicilian pizza—meaning square-cut slices, baked in a pan, with a thick, close-textured crumb—neither actually originates from Sicily. In fact, as I only just discovered, the founders of both restaurants hail from the province of Avellino, Italy, in the Campania region. (Galleria Umberto is named after a famous domed indoor shopping gallery in Naples, Campania’s capital.)
L&B Spumoni Gardens is in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, just north of Coney Island, and was founded by Ludovico Barbati in 1939 as a place to vend the Italian ices, ice cream, and pizza that he’d been selling on the streets prior to that (spumoni is a layered Neapolitan ice cream dessert).
L&B also makes round, thin crust pies, but it’s really best known for its square pies, which are thick and spongy, with a light, crisp bottom, topped in an “upside down” manner, with a layer of low-moisture mozzarella cheese placed on the bare dough, followed by a later of tomato sauce and a dusting of Pecorino Romano cheese. The cheese underlayer protects the crust from mingling with the sauce, keeping it light and airy, and the sauce keeps the cheese moist and melty. As you can see from the slices above, the grated cheese is melted but not browned.
L&B has an extensive menu of all sorts of Italian food and desserts, but I’ve only had the square pie, and it’s all I really need. I don’t get all the way out to Bensonhurst every time I am in New York, but I try to.
Galleria Umberto, located in Boston’s North End, has a much more modest menu than L&B, but it is no less iconic. My friend and fellow pizza head Terrence Doyle (who shot all of the Umberto images here) wrote an excellent primer on Umberto for Eater awhile back:
Every day from 10:45 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. — except on the Lord’s day, and except in July, when the restaurant closes for a month-long holiday — a hungry lunch crowd queues up to eat a slice of Sicilian pizza or arancini at Umberto. They make between 100 and 200 arancini a day, Deuterio said, and all by hand because there “isn’t a mimeograph machine for rice balls.” (Come after 12:30 p.m., and it’s unlikely there will be any left.) On a busy day, Umberto turns out 60 sheets of pizza. That’s 1,200 slices. And they almost always sell out.
[Paul] Deuterio has been slinging pizza in the North End for almost as long as he can remember. He moved to the neighborhood with his family from Avelino, Italy, in 1958, when he was just 10 years old. In 1965, his parents, Umberto and Antonette, opened a bakery on Parmenter Street. The bakery specialized in bread and only began making pizza because Deuterio figured they could turn the extra dough into extra revenue.
I don’t know what the slices cost way back when Umberto opened, but to this day they remain one of the best bargains in pizza anywhere; last time I checked, they were less than 2 bucks a slice.
The pizza at Galleria Umberto is a little softer and less crisp than that of L&B, with a slightly lower stature, and it is topped right side up, with the sauce under the cheese, but the vibe and the joy it provides are pretty much the same.
Unlike both L&B’s and Galleria Umberto’s Sicily-by-way-of-Campania slices, sfincione are fully Sicilian, and the original form of the slices we think of as “Sicilian” here in the US:
This pizza most refer to as “Sicilian” is actually derived from sfincione, a street food synonymous with Palermo, Sicily's capital. Nowadays, it's topped with tomato sauce, but the original version was complete with anchovies, sliced tuma (Sicilian cheese made from raw sheep’s milk), breadcrumbs with grated pecorino cheese, onions, salt, and extra-virgin olive oil.
Sfincia means “sponge” in Sicilian, and sfincione means “big sponge.” The breadcrumb-topped pizza is served year round on the island, but it is traditionally eaten around the Christmas holidays each year. If you’ve never had sfincione but are a fan of Sicilian pizza, you owe it to yourself to try this recipe at least once. (I probably don’t really need to sell any of you on the idea of carbs-on-carbs, but breadcrumbs on pizza are excellent, especially once combined with olive oil, herbs, and salty cheese.)
Thankfully for you, I have a recipe to share for sfincione, along with my mashup tribute to both L&B and Umberto’s pies. Both recipes use the same base crust, with different sauces and toppings. Keep an eye on your inboxes, as these recipes will drop not long after this email did.