Lombardi's on Spring St, by Beyond My Ken - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Sep 27, 2021
Lombardi’s arrives in Bay Ridge—but leaves the pizza behind
America’s original pizzeria picks neighborhood soul over a sauce beloved by celebrities as it expands into Brooklyn
UPDATE on January 17, 2022: After months of hearing from bar patrons about their famous pizza, Lombardi’s Bay Ridge location has changed course to add seven 14″ pies to its traditional Italian menu. For $20-$26, the pies include these options: Margherita, Arugula, Basil Pesto, Hand-Pulled Sausage, White Ricotta, Double Pepperoni and Eggplant. The shift in direction happened toward the end of 2021 after management began to recognize their bar crowd and delivery customers—an important group as Omicrom keeps many people at home—wanted pizza options beyond the one pizzetta appetizer offered on the restaurant’s original menu.
Lombardi’s opened America’s first pizzeria in Little Italy in 1905, and today it’s a staple not only for regular New Yorkers but also celebrities such as Nicholas Cage, Kate Moss and Björk—not to mention international dignitaries such as French first couple Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron.
So, when a “Lombardi’s” sign went up near 89th street on Third Avenue in Bay Ridge in early August, it raised a few eyebrows in southwest Brooklyn: “That Lombardi’s? Here?”
Yes, that Lombardi’s. The new outpost is actually the third franchise to open: There was, briefly, a Chelsea location late last decade. But there’s a twist: The newest Lomardi’s outpost is not a pizza joint. It’s a trattoria, serving beef short ribs over polenta, veal parmigiana, spicy crab arrabbiata, cacio pepe and other Italian plates. The only pizza on the menu is a pizzetta appetizer.
This was not the initial plan.
For pizza-minded business folks like the Lombardi’s team, the Brooklyn location was enticing because it already had a coal-fire oven, which would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to purchase and put in.
Gilbert Soto, who has worked at Lombardi’s since 2000, is the owner of the Bay Ridge location. He was given the opportunity to extend the brand to the outer borough by the current Spring Street owner, Michael Gianmarino, and John Brescio, a now-retired owner who is still active with the two restaurants in an emeritus-styled role. Soto and Gianmarino simply assumed the new spot would be a pizza house because of that stove—which was actually implemented by Patsy’s, another Manhattan pizza staple. Patsy’s opened its restaurant in Bay Ridge in 2017, but it never took and shuttered during the pandemic. When Soto visited the space and eyed the neighborhood, reality quickly sunk in.
“There was a pizzeria next door and others down the street,” says Soto. “So, I told Michael and John, ‘I just don’t see it.’ The pizzeria next door was family-owned and from the neighborhood. That just didn’t seem right. Didn’t feel right.’”
He didn’t know it at the time, but there’s data to back his instincts. Bay Ridge has been a pizza paradise since Saturday Night Fever’s filmmakers shot their famous folded-slice scene in the locale 40 years ago. According to Yelp, there are more pizza restaurants in Bay Ridge (26) than in Little Italy (24). Right next door to Lombardi’s is Nonno’s, a popular slice joint. Two blocks away is another neighborhood mainstay, Nino’s Pizza. A bit further but still only a five-minute walk is Campania’s, a sit-down eatery with coal-fire pies that often has 30-minute waits for tables. And down the avenue from Lombardi’s is another coal-fire pizza house named … Lombardo’s.
Justin Brannan, who grew up in the neighborhood, lives there today and is the local district’s city councilmember, called the local pizza scene “an embarrassment of riches.” He added, “Bay Ridge has a very discerning palate when it comes to this stuff, though. If you serve great food, you will do very well here.”
Sal Maida (not of Roxy Music fame) confirms this. Sitting at the head of a full table on a recent Sunday night, he offers his review. “It was spot on,” he says. “Classic Italian.”
It had better be. This endeavor took some convincing. “Imagine how hard it was to get [Gianmarino and Brescio] to let me use the name without the pizza?” Soto says.
Soto landed his first job at Lombardi’s in 2000, shortly after arriving from the Dominican Republic at the age of 17. He mopped floors, washed dishes and took on every role imaginable at one time or another in the shop. Brescio elevated him to general manager in 2004—only a few years after playing an early part in helping Soto learn English as a second language.
“The first time I went to get John a cup of coffee,” Soto recalls, smiling, “I brought back the coffee and milk in separate cups because I didn’t understand what he meant when he said, ‘Go get me a coffee with milk.’ But seriously, I owe everything to that guy.”
Brescio, a lifelong Manhattanite, says he’s moving to Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens so he can more easily drive to both restaurants and help out. “I feel very comfortable here in Bay Ridge,” he says, nodding his head and looking around the opulent-yet-casual restaurant, which sits under the shadow of the Verrazzano Bridge.
The eatery, Soto says, “will live and die by our customer service.”
He seems to know something about hospitality. French first lady Brigitte Macron once negotiated Lombardi’s into a conversation with her husband, Emmanuel, convincing him that a trip to New York should also mean they eat a pie at her favorite Little Italy pizzeria. That’s just not your ordinary reservation.
“They sat down at the bar and enjoyed the moment,” Soto recalls. “[The Macrons] asked to take a picture with the staff because they said this memory will always make them feel good. And he said, ‘Now, I see why my wife likes it here.’”
Soto also notes that Little Italy has gone from a family neighborhood to something much more touristy in the last couple of decades. Bay Ridge, by contrast, has commonly been referred to as “a small town in New York City.”
On one of the restaurant’s first Monday evenings, Soto looked over his shoulder and back at a full bar of locals with one kind of drink or another. He saw a single diner with a pizzetta; all the others had Italian plates.
“Be still my heart,” he says. “You see, that’s what I am talking about.”
Lombardi’s in Bay Ridge opens for the dinner-and-drinks crowd at 4 p.m.and takes last orders at 10 p.m. Sunday through Friday; it’s also open for lunch on Saturdays. Entrees range from $24 to $44, appetizers run $12 to $28, and sides go for $10 to $14. Soto says the beef short ribs so far were the most popular plate at the eatery, which strikes the balance of a casual-but-opulent ambience and has a family-friendly dining hall in the back.
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