Photo by Brian Braiker
Jun 25, 2021
In South Park Slope, a death in the New York city pizza family
Luigi Lanzo, of the Fifth Ave. pizza place Luigi's, has died, leaving behind a hole in the community—and an iconic New York slice.
When I call Giovanni Lanzo to discuss the legacy of his father, Luigi Lanzo, founder of South Park Slope’s beloved Luigi’s Pizza and an exemplar of hard work and human decency, our conversation is interrupted at intervals by customers, all of whom Giovanni seems to know by name, and devastated well-wishers, who have spotted the memorial of roses and candles outside of the front door.
“Thank you, thank you,” says Lanzo, in a rich New York accent, speaking to a man with emotion in his voice. “Yes, yes. He’s with my mother now.”
Luigi Lanzo passed away June 14 at the age of 88. The neighborhood is just finding out, in part thanks to the makeshift shrine at the Fifth Avenue storefront. Luigi’s Pizza, which Lanzo père opened in 1973, has been a local fixture, revered for the quiet, consistent excellence of its pies, and its immutability in a community where rent prices continue to climb.
At Luigi’s you can reliable get a classic old school New York slice at its finest: A slightly-sweet tomato sauce (Lanzo’s wife Teodora’s recipe) burbles under creamy fresh pockets of mozzarella. The grandma slice is robust to make any nonna proud. The basil is fresh, the shop itself charmingly retro—if you’ve never been, you might recognize it from its cameo in the 1999 Adam Sandler movie “Big Daddy.”
Lanzo began saving up for the shop when he emigrated to New York from Calabria, in southwest Italy, in 1961, at the age of 28.
“He came here with a dream,” says Lanzo, who took over the shop when his father retired in 2000. “And he made it happen with a lot of work.”
Luigi Lanzo’s first job in Brooklyn was at the Green-Wood Cemetery, where he worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., before starting a 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift at a pizzeria. He was scrupulous with his savings. With Teodora, he fathered five children—Marisa, Lisa, Rosina, Gina, and Giovanni—who, they say, he prioritized above everything, including himself.
“He always thought about us,” says Lanzo. “He was the most unselfish person I’ll ever meet in my life. He didn’t care about what he wore. His pants could be ripped, his shirt could be ripped, but we had to have everything.”
After founding Luigi’s Pizza, he extended the same generosity to his customers. The stories, Lanzo explains, are often the same. Older residents of the neighborhood tell him about a time when they had no money, or found themselves a couple bucks short, but his father fed them anyway.
“My father and my mother’s big saying was: Do good and forget about it. Do wrong, and think about it every day for the rest of your life,” says Lanzo.
Outside of work, Luigi could reliably be found in his yard. Every morning, Luigi and Teodora were awake by 5 or 6 a.m., tending to their garden. They grew herbs and vegetables, which made their way onto pizzas sold at the shop. They raised chickens. They planted tomatoes and grape vines, and grew fig, peach, plum, and apricot trees.
“My father always said, ‘Why don’t they put fruit trees in the street?” says Lanzo. “His house is outlined with fruit trees. That way people can always eat something.”
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