Brooklyn’s Best Squares
The Murder of Louis Barbati, an American Pizza Man
In a changing Brooklyn the hardworking grandson of a hardworking Italian immigrant was shot down in front of his home.
The little girl in a raspberry colored dress and a lime green plastic crown exulted in the outdoor dining area at L&B Spumoni Gardens.
“Mommy, I ate all my pizza pie!”
“They put the sauce on top of the cheese,” Anthony Russo explained.
The girl’s delight attested anew to the delicious result. She took no particular notice of the reporters and news cameras on the sidewalk outside the fence. The media gaggle was there because the 61-year-old co-owner of this renowned Brooklyn pizzeria had been shot to death outside his nearby home 17 hours before.
Louis Barbati Jr. is said to have had a pistol permit and was often seen with a .38 revolver in his waistband. The 61-year-old also was often in the company of a retired cop who no doubt would have served as a bodyguard if the need arose.
But Barbati was alone and apparently unarmed when he left L&B just after 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. He climbed into his white 2015 Mercedes SUV and made the short drive home. He had a loaf of bread for dinner and more than $10,000 in cash in a plastic bag as he came to the five steps leading to the back of the tidy brick house where his wife was preparing dinner. His two sons were also inside. Flowers were in bloom to his left and to his right as he ascended.
A man in a black hoodie and grey pants who must have been awaiting his arrival stepped up behind him and fired five times with a revolver. Barbati was struck at least twice and called to his wife. She had at first thought the gunshots were fireworks set off as the Fourth of July approached. She now stepped from the house into horror.
“He got shot! He got shot!” she was heard to cry out.
The wife called 911, but her husband was beyond saving. The police noted that the gunman had fled without taking the thousands of cash. The wife told them that her husband only brought home such large sums a half dozen times a year.
On Friday, detectives were still canvassing the surrounding homes for surveillance camera video that might tell them whether the motive had been money or murder. Did the gunman go for the bag of cash but then panic? Or did he just blaze away and flee? Detectives suspected it had been a bungled robbery.
“Someone knew he had that money on him,” NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce told reporters. “Nothing else comes up in terms of motive.”
Perhaps the killer also knew that Barbati had a gun permit and decided just to blast away without warning. Robbers who hit armored cars are known to forsake announcing a stick-up and shoot the armed guards rather than risk being shot themselves.
Theft of another kind had taken place at L&B several years ago. That was when one of the workers passed the Barbati family recipe for sauce to an associate of a whole other sort of family, the Bonanno crime family. The Bonanno guy had opened a pizzeria on Staten Island.
At the time, a Colombo crime family associate named Francis “BF” Guerra was married to an L&B co-owner. Guerra and another Colombo goon stormed over to the Staten Island pizzeria and made colorful threats.
One sign of the Mafia’s decline came when a sit-down between the Colombo and Bonanno families was held at a Panera, the countrywide chain whose name was concocted from the Italian words for bread and time, pane and era. A second sign of decline came when the Colombo representative, acting captain Anthony Russo, subsequently turned rat, recounted at a 2012 trial how the stolen sauce situation had been defused.
“[The Bonanno representative] said, ‘Are we gonna go after every pizzeria that puts sauce on their slice?’ ” Russo said. “I said, ‘You got a point there.’ ”
Russo’s recollection had been part of his testimony as a prosecution witness against Guerra, who had been charged with extortion for being part of a deal in which the sauce thief made a cash reparation.
Russo had also been charged with two mob murders. The defense called Russo’s former wife, who testified that Guerra had been with her and another friend on the night of the murder.
“We were playing games of Clue,” Michelle Fama told the court. “I know it sounds silly but we happen to like it.”
The jury bought the audacious alibi as surely as if the real killer had been Professor Plum. Guerra was also acquitted of the other murder, as well as the extortion charge. He was convicted of selling Oxycodone and is presently serving a 14-year term in federal prison. His wife divorced him, ending his connection to L&B.
By then, the Mafia had become so weakened that the Colombo family had trouble acquiring a gun for a supposedly secret induction ceremony that was then canceled because the FBI had found out about it. Mob hits seemed to become a thing of the past.
And by all indications, Louis Barbati Jr. was not anything but the hardworking grandson of a hardworking Italian immigrant.
“Ludovico Barbati came to the United States in 1917 from Torella Di Lombardi, Italy,” the L&B website says. “In 1938 Ludovico learned from a baker how to make pizza in a garage on West 8th Street, Brooklyn. To sell his products he decided to peddle them using a horse and wagon. So he purchased Babe the horse, and a wagon, and sold his products up and down the streets.”
The tale continues: “In 1939, Ludovico, Sr. decided he needed a little, inexpensive place to make the Spumoni and Ices, so he purchased vacant property on 86th Street in Brooklyn. He asked his friends, who were carpenters, brick layers and cement workers from the old country, to build the first of now three buildings. As he manufactured his Spumoni in his new factory, neighborhood people would come in to buy his products, stopping him from making the goods to sell from his horse and wagon. As business grew he decided it couldn’t go on that way. So he told his daughter Anna to stay in the factory and serve the people while he made the Spumoni. Well, it caught on, so once again he asked his friends to build a shanty in front of the factory where he could put out some tables and chairs, and plant some trees.”
The tale concludes, “In the mid 1950s L&B Spumoni Gardens built the second of the now three buildings, which is now the Pizzeria, selling our famous thick Sicilian pies, as well as our regular round pies…. L&B Spumoni Gardens is now in its fourth generation. There will always be a family member to greet you at our doors. We are proud of our heritage and we know how proud our grandfather Ludovico would be of us. We are so very grateful for his insight.”
An old photo of Ludovico Barbati at the reins of his spumoni wagon pulled by Babe was reproduced on the pizza boxes that continued to be filled with Brooklyn’s best Sicilian pies the day after his grandson’s murder. The photo also appeared on the T-shirts of young men who worked the counter.
“Serving The Public For Over 70 Years,” read the words stenciled below.
Farther back from the counter, other men were performing the double secret, applying the cheese before adding the sauce made from the family recipe. They appeared to be more likely from Mexico than from Italy. And an ever-increasing number of the shops in the surrounding streets once run by Italian immigrants are now run by immigrants from a variety of other countries, many of them Asian.
So, there was a larger message in the alternating American and Italian flags that fluttered in front of L&B in this changing Brooklyn; America is at its best when infused with the desire of new arrivals to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Therein lies the not so secret recipe of true American greatness. And, when that little girl in the lime green crown ate her whole pizza pie at an outdoor table such as L&B’s founder had set out decades ago, she was feasting on what makes the nation’s upcoming birthday so worth celebrating.
Sadly, the news folks on the sidewalk were a reminder of the murder and of the violence that blights us. Family members at Louis Barbati Jr.’s house scrubbed his blood away from the steps with water and a broom. But there remained three bullet holes in the fence. And the new widow will not likely be able to hear what really is fireworks on the Fourth of July without thinking of gunshots.