New York’s Pizza Czar Mark Iacono Doesn’t Get Starstruck
Mark Iacono is old school right down to his lack of interest in technology. When his assistant granted me a sit-down with one of the world’s most famous pizzamen, she gave me his direct line. And when, on our initial call, Iacono asked how my morning was, I happened to be at the stove preparing fried spaghetti pie, a speciality of my Italian grandmother’s. Iacono’s mother used to make the same thing, he replied, but it had been years since he had one. So, I mustered up the courage—or hubris—to make the dish for the man whose pizzeria, Lucali, regularly hosts celebrities like Beyoncé and Jay-Z and Bella Hadid, who recently celebrated her birthday at the now 16-year-old Carroll Gardens landmark. And on a quiet afternoon before the dinner rush, over hunks of spaghetti pie and a few cigarettes, Iacono spoke to me about Lucali’s new Miami outpost, resisting the temptation to monetize, and how celebrities score a seat at his perennially busy restaurant. “They don’t,” he said sharply, like a true New Yorker. “They get in line.”
IACONO: I don’t want to be rude, but I’m going to record this too.
LEDONNE: So, set the stage for me. I walk into Lucali on a busy night. Can you explain what it’s like and why it has the reputation that it has?
IACONO: You know, I stand back there and I wonder, “Why? Why is it like this? And I kept questioning, “Is my pizza really that good?” And here we are 16, 17 years in and I’m starting to think that maybe the pizza is that good. I think as a whole, prior to the place blowing up, once the word got out before all of the movie stars started coming in, it has a lot to do with—I don’t get excited when someone comes here, but I get excited when they come back. People have been coming once a week pretty much since day one. I really don’t think there are any smoke and mirrors here, it’s really about the pizza and it took me a long time to realize that. I always put a lot of pressure on myself.
LEDONNE: When you think about all of the pizza places in New York and the world, for a pizza place in Carroll Gardens to have the reputation this one has…
IACONO: This was totally organic.
LEDONNE: You’re a food personality without a TV show or a podcast. And I don’t think you’ve written a book.
IACONO: No. I’ve never read one. [Laughs]
LEDONNE: So to have your reputation, it really speaks to the unique quality Lucali has.
IACONO: It’s all about the pizza.
LEDONNE: Was there one moment when you realized it’d be bigger than just a popular place in the neighborhood?
IACONO: That took awhile. It’s just me back there making pizzas with an ignorance and lack of knowledge of the industry. I got a write-up in the New York Times and it’s like, “big deal.” It’s not the Daily News. I want to be in the Daily News because that’s the paper I read, the paper I grew up on. It goes back to the blue-collar neighborhood this used to be. I remember as a kid, at the candy shop I worked at, I used to have to put the Sunday papers together. There were 250 newspapers and it was the Daily News and maybe five New York Times.
LEDONNE: So status wasn’t important to you.
IACONO: The build-out was a passion. I wanted to open up my own business. People thought I was crazy. “What do you mean you’re opening a pizza place? You’ve never made pizza before.” Alright, how hard can it be? I can build a house. I can’t build a pizza? It’s pizza. I’ll figure it out. I’ll put something decent out there and make a decent living and make some extra money. That was the thought process. It’s not like I came in here thinking I’d become one of the most famous pizzerias in the world. I built this place for me. This past Tuesday night, I got a phone call from someone wanted to come in and eat. We’re closed on Tuesdays, but I said, “Alright, come in.”
LEDONNE: Who was it?
IACONO: It was a friend of mine. I set the whole restaurant up. I set up the candles and I’m sitting in here by myself waiting for them to get here. They were supposed to come at 9:30 and they ended up canceling. Whatever, not a big deal. I’m sitting here, and I didn’t want to leave. And I’m like, “It is so nice here right now.” All of the lights were super dim and I didn’t create that for my customer, I created it for me.
LEDONNE: So now there’s a shop in Miami. How’d that come about?
IACONO: You want to know something? I never put thought into that. Why, who, when, where. I don’t know. I can’t answer that question right now. Maybe I’ll have an answer for you later.
LEDONNE: But you’re juggling both places and you’re hands on?
IACONO: Yeah, it’s hands on. And that’s why we only have two restaurants, where you see a lot of chefs have ten, twelve, fifteen.
LEDONNE: Is there any interest in putting out a sauce, a cookbook, expanding the empire like that?
IACONO: That goes back to me getting in my own way, being a perfectionist or just worrying about what people think. Again, doing a sauce line is out of your control. You alone could be judged by what someone else is doing. So maybe that’s what I’m hesitant.
LEDONNE: Are a lot of people knocking on your door, saying let’s do this or that, let’s do a line of frozen pizzas?
LEDONNE: And you’re turning them all down?
IACONO: No. I think it’s just a question of finding the right person to do it with. There are people, for the most part, whose intentions are not good. And I experienced that personally. I wasn’t honed for this. I just jumped right in.
LEDONNE: It was a baptism by fire.
IACONO: Yeah, it was a baptism by fire. I like it. That sounds good. Even my waitresses are super green to it. “Yeah, some guy’s on the phone and says Alice Waters wants to come in.” I told ‘em, “Yeah it’s going to be two hours.” It’s probably some asshole just trying to get a table by dropping a name. Who the fuck is Alice Waters? Never heard of her. [Later on] I was at the cooking institute, the school to go to, on Broadway. I walk in and there’s pictures of Jacque Poupon, Bobby Flay, this guy and that guy. I’m like, “Why do they want me here?” So I’m sitting with someone in charge of something at the school and they asked, “Do you get a lot of celebrities?” Because you know, Jay [Leno] came in. I said, “No, but we get a lot of chefs. Some lady came in, Alice Winters.” He goes, “What?” He says, “Alice Waters?” I said, “Yeah, and she wrote me a letter saying that she enjoyed the experience.” He goes, “Are you kidding me? I’ll be right back.” He goes into the kitchen of the school’s restaurant and all of the chefs come out. He said, “Tell them who came into your restaurant.” “Alice Winters.” “No, no, Alice Waters.” He explained to me who she was and what she means in the industry. So maybe that will spread some insight into what’s going on with me.
LEDONNE: Do you ever find out after the fact about a celebrity who’s come in?
IACONO: That does happen. I’m 55 years old. Let me give you a perfect example. I really never get starstruck by anybody coming here, and Alan Alda comes in. And I’m like, “Whoa! Alan Alda.” I love M*A*S*H. I’ve seen every episode and all of his movies and to me, he’s a living legend. It’s Alan Alda. And my waitresses are looking at me like, “What’s wrong with you?” “Alan Alda’s coming in!” “Who’s Alan Alda?!”
LEDONNE: Is it ever the reverse, where they’re excited about someone you don’t know?
IACONO: Yeah. “So and so follows you on Instagram.” Who the hell is so-and-so? Who are they? I don’t know these people.
LEDONNE: How do people get a reservation here?
IACONO: They don’t. They get in line. The only people who get a reservation here are my regulars.
LEDONNE: What if someone’s “people” call you?
IACONO: Listen, I’m not mentioning any names, but you’ll see a lot of them standing on the sidewalk with everyone else. I’ll tell you my Ed Sheeran story. I’m making pizza and look out the window and on that stoop right here is some guy with red hair. I’m looking at the guy like, “That looks like Ed Sheeran. Is that Ed Sheeran sitting on the stoop across the street?” He was out there drinking wine with his girlfriend.
LEDONNE: Waiting to come in?
IACONO: Yeah. He walked up, asked for a table, they told him, “45 minutes!” And there was Ed Sheeran, sitting across the street. And not only that, he wrote a song about it!
LEDONNE: He did?
IACONO: “First Times,” it’s called. It happened to be his first date with his girlfriend, who is now his wife.
LEDONNE: Can I ask you about the night when the Yankees visited?
IACONO: They did a buy-out. That’s why Aaron Judge needs to be named Captain of the Yankees. He takes his team out. He keeps the team together. What do they call that, “camaraderie?” He takes on that role without even being captain.