Sitting at one of the small wooden tables in his new brick-oven pizzeria in Carroll Gardens, Mark Iacono looked out the window at the block of Henry Street between Carroll Street and First Place. Drawing on what seemed to be a photographic memory, he recalled how it looked when he was a kid growing up in the once Italian-American-dominated neighborhood of Brooklyn.
"There was a pizzeria on the corner. Next to it was a baccalà store. Then there was a butcher; right next door, there was a drugstore. Across the street on the corner was a candy store. Right next to that was a fish store. Where the eyeglass place is now there was a haircutter; on the corner was a social club," Mr. Iacono said.
None of those businesses remain. Mr. Iacono's new pizza place, Lucali, occupies the space that had been home to Louie's Candy Store for many years. An old-fashioned sweets emporium with a soda fountain and a reputation for the best egg creams in Brooklyn, Louie's was the last to go.
"I remember my dad taking me here as a kid," Mr. Iacono, whose old-neighborhood wariness is tempered by an easy-going manner, said. He grew up right across the street. My mom grew up right around the block. It was part of me. When it closed down, the thought of someone else having it just didn't sit well with me."
The shop's passing so pained Mr. Iacono, he decided that if he couldn't save Louie's, he would preserve its memory. He decided to open a pizza joint offering Neopolitan-style pies with thin, charred crusts and fresh ingredients — the kind his friends and family would appreciate. During the next two years, he split his days between his nine-to-five job in construction and renovating the Henry Street storefront. "The first swing of the hammer wasn't easy," he said. "Taking apart the interior was tough. I really wanted it to still have that feel of Louie's Candy Store."
One day last fall, the space was all but complete — albeit unnamed and unlisted — so Mr. Iacono unceremoniously put the oven to work. "I made a couple pies," he said. "I invited my neighbors to come in and try it out. In about an hour, we were half full. In two hours, every table was filled. It's been that way ever since. I didn't have a chance to practice. I had no choice but to do it."
Lucali's out-of-the-gate success comes despite the fact that its owner had never owned a restaurant in his 36 years. He said that prior to that first day he had never made a pizza. But sometimes heritage and instinct can trump experience, and Mr. Iacono has both. His sauce is inspired by those made by his grandmother, mother, and aunts. And he knew where to get the best local ingredients: Nearby Aiello Dairy is one of his cheese providers, and his sausage comes from Court Street's Esposito Pork Store. "Even though I've never done it before, I knew I'd make a great pizza," he said. "Every time I would go to a place, I'd think, ‘if they just would do this …'"
The South Brooklyn of old can be found all over Lucali for those who know where to look. The espresso machine comes from Leonardo's, a Court Street pizzeria that closed a few year ago and was replaced by a Dunkin' Donuts. Old signs, a cigarette rack and a small shelf supporting an old wooden-frame television set were salvaged from Louie's Candy Shop. Even the shop's name is an homage. The moniker is a conflation of two names: Louie, of candy shop fame, and Mr. Iacono's daughter, Kalista.
Mr. Iacono's vision for Lucali is not yet complete. Right now, the only menu choice beyond pizza (which starts at $18) is a calzone. He is considering adding an appetizer, perhaps a special every evening, and plans to sell beer and wine soon. But part of him wants to do what his mercantile mentors did before him — keep it simple."I think people just come here for the pizza," he said. "Maybe I'll have to open another restaurant for other stuff."