Arguably the best pizza in New York, Lucali is a neighborhood joint known for its charred crust and famous regulars like Beyonce and Jay-Z. New Yorkers wax poetic about Lucali’s perfect sauce to cheese ratio and that oh-so-thin crust. In fact, customers wait hours to get a table at the Brooklyn eatery, where cash is king and wine is BYO. Recently, there have been rumors that Lucali’s perfectionist owner, Mark Iacono, is taking his pie-making skills to South Beach.
Well, the wait is over! Last night, I was invited to a friends and family tasting of the South Beach version of Lucali. Situated smack in the Sunset Harbour neighborhood, this cozy spot is serving straightforward, delicious pizza: bubbly, thin crust; savory tomato sauce; and a soft layer of stretchy mozzarella cheese. It all works! The pizza isn’t oily, heavy, too saucy or loaded down with gimmicky ingredients. It’s actually so light that I had three slices last night, which is a record for me!
Iacono has partnered up with his cousin Dominic Cavagnuolo to run the Miami location of Lucali. Mark has even entrusted Dom with the secret sauce recipe, which no one knows. The Brooklynite actually makes the sauce batch by batch each day in order to keep the ingredients and mix his own proprietary blend. In fact, no matter how much I asked, he wouldn’t reveal any details.
“It’s old school Brooklyn, New York-style pizza,” Mark says. “Places that I grew up with having pizza back in the day. There was that old man making pizza fresh every day. Pizza sells itself. Everybody loves pizza. Then people started using cheaper cheese and cheaper sauce because they figured it was still going to sell. They look at it as more of a business. For me, I love the look on someone’s face when they bite into my slice for the first time.”
Dom actually traces the authenticity of the pizza back to their grandmother in Brooklyn: “We know what pizza is supposed to taste like. Every Sunday our grandmother made a fresh pot of sauce and we would hover around the oven. We would have a little plate and piece of Italian bread waiting to dip the sauce in. We couldn’t wait to taste the sauce. It was blistering hot but we ate it. I still have those fond memories. It’s like yesterday to me. We all sat around the table, 30 of us, every Sunday. Grandma’s gone, but the tradition moves forward.”
In fact, Lucali’s pizza and calzones do feel like an artisanal experience. The dough is hand-rolled in front of customers, using a wine bottle to thin it out. The sauce is perfectly ladled out, followed by a smattering of hand-grated mozzarella cheese and huge bunches of fresh basil. Then it is paddled over to the 800-degree brick pizza oven, where it is cooked for just under two minutes. The pie emerges hot, bubbly and aromatic and straight to the table. It is best consumed immediately. Save the matzo-thin crust for last.
Everything at Lucali is made by hand, and the ingredients are simple and garden fresh (from the basil to the artichokes). I took a tour of the kitchen and there’s not much there because Mark doesn’t believe in cutting corners with prepping before service. There are no vats of processed cheese or frozen dough. “This isn’t fast food,” Dom emphasizes. “There’s a lot of love and passion that goes into it. That’s part of the greatness.”
Miamians are just going to have to get used to waiting for their pizza, though. “I’m noticing that the people down here want their food right away,” Mark observes. “Sit, relax, enjoy the music and wine.” The only concession to locals is the addition of salads on the menu, which will give customers something to graze on as each pie is made to order. “We’ll never add appetizers and pasta,” Mark promises. “My places have a restaurant feel but they are pizzerias. You want pasta, there are so many great Italian restaurants. But we are a pizzeria.”
Since Mark is known as a perfectionist—he doesn’t even consider his Brooklyn location officially open yet—he has been experimenting with his dough due to some of the Miami elements like the water, temperature and humidity. “It is different down here,” he admits. “The water is different, but it’s not something you can’t work with. The temperature, the humidity. It’s just a question of making adjustments. I’m making dough every six hours to perfect it.” He attributes Miami’s bad rep for pizza to the fact that so many terrible pizzeria owners moved here in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “They couldn’t make it in New York so they came down here,” he says. “They saw opportunity and you got stuck with those guys.”
That certainly isn’t the case with the Miami Lucali, which still doesn’t have an opening date. The 70-seat restaurant (more than double the size of New York) is clearly a work in process, although I did ascertain that they will be open for dinner first before tackling lunch. There’s also a wine and beer bar next door with an emphasis on unique, low-production vineyards. Lucali, and the adjoining wine bar, will definitely become the hot spot for transplanted New Yorkers. At dinner last night, Antonio Misuraca, who grew up with Mark, noted that he felt like he was back in Brooklyn, in fact.
Dom concurs: “This was meant to mimic what Lucali looks and feels like back home. We wanted to duplicate that and give it a Miami feel, while staying true to our roots. Lucali is all about authenticity. This [Sunset Harbour] neighborhood was the closest we could get to replicating that feeling. That’s why we’re here.”
As for Mark, who heads back to Brooklyn on Friday, he is still improving his pizza. One gets the sense that he will continue to tinker for the next few years, despite the fact that the entire crowd was raving last night. “We’ve had pies that have been right up to par with New York,” he acknowledges. “It’s just about keeping it consistent and authentic.” Amen to that!