Saturday, August 12, 2006

Back to Di Fara

I was never a regular reader of food blogs, bulletin boards or columns until I started writing Word of Mouth earlier this year. One of my greatest surprises when I did start following what other foodies were talking about, especially via Chowhound, was that a pizza place (that's the traditional, official New York term for "pizzeria") from my old Brooklyn neighborhood, Di Fara's, had achieved legendary status among pizza cognoscenti. Now the last time I had eaten at Di Fara's was probably in 1978, the year I left the old neighborhood, Midwood. Back then it was a good, solid, by-the-slice neighborhood pizza place, but I don't remember it being remarkable. So I wondered what all the fuss was about. And I'm talking fuss. At times the Di Fara devotees come across like a weird religious cult.

What I eventually pieced together, through Chowhound and coverage in other media, like the excellent pizza blog Slice, is that some time in the '80s Di Fara's owner, Dom DeMarco, who opened the place in 1964, got pizza religion and started devoting an almost obsessive artisanal attention to his pies, switching to quality imported ingredients unheard of in most neighborhood pizzerias. I was able to glean from the gospels that Dom achieved pizza divinity by about 1990, and that he continues to tinker with his recipes. Dom, however, plied his trade in relative obscurity until the internet revolutionized the nature of "word of mouth." Some give Chowhound's founder Jim Leff much of the credit, citing a 1997 kvell that caused an avalanche.

As far as the name is concerned, there was never a Mr. Di Fara. Two years ago Dom told the New York Times, "When I opened the store, my partner's name was Farina. My name is DeMarco. So when the lawyer made the paper, he put the two names together. Di Fara. Di for me, and Fara for him. I bought my partner out in 1978, I think." It appears that Farina and I left the neighborhood at about the same time.

As far as the recipe is concerned, Slice's Adam Kuban writes, "Mr. DeMarco uses a combination of fresh and canned San Marzano tomatoes for the sauce, which he makes daily—sometimes several times a day, from what we understand. Then there's the cheese: a combination of high-quality regular mozzarella, fresh buffalo mozzarella that he imports from Italy, and a dusting of sharp, slightly nutty-tasting grana padana. All this goodness sits atop a thin crust that Dom somehow coaxes to near-coal-oven crispness." There's also the extra-virgin olive oil.

Now the corner of Avenue J and East 15th Street in my old neighborhood is a major foodie destination. A once-quiet neighborhood pizzeria has become a constantly busy pilgrimage site. And as with any pilgrimage worthy of the name, there are trials to endure.

The long waits at Di Fara's are legendary, with forty-five minutes for a slice being perhaps the most cited average. A number of factors account for the long wait: Dom's care and precision; the fact that he and he alone makes all the pizzas, from start to finish; the fact that all the pies are freshly baked (i.e., no cold pizzas waiting to be reheated); the fact that only one level of the oven (your basic convection oven, by the way), the one closest to the flame, is used to bake the pies, meaning that there is room for only two at a time; and, of course, the incredible popularity of the place. Another factor is that at times, apparently, Dom works alone, with no help to take orders or money from the patrons, or to grate cheese, or to fill the olive oil decanters.

Dizzy from the buzz, I figured I had to give Di Fara's a try, even though returning to my old neighborhood always gives me the creeps. Given my mistrust of all religions and mass movements, I was skeptical. I was sure Di Fara's couldn't live up to its reputation. I was also reluctant to wait in an interminable line for a couple of slices of pizza, so I put off my visit until I could get there at an "off hour," or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. On Friday, August 4 I left the office early and headed out to Midwood on the Q Train. I got to Di Fara's at about 3:15 PM. It looked exactly the same as it had in the 70s—same crude, hand-painted sign, same grungy interior, same oven, I'm pretty sure, which looked like it had seen active battlefield duty. The only thing different was the fact there were articles, tributes and awards hanging all over the walls.

There were about three or four other patrons in the shop. I gave my order to Dom's daughter, whose assistance helps things, in a small way, to run more smoothly. I ordered one regular slice with artichokes, a house specialty, and one square slice. In less than five minutes a round pie came out. Dom's daughter spooned the sauteed artichoke hearts onto my slice. I brought it over to a table, along with my can of Limonata, and dug in.

Yes, it was good. It was very good. But was it transcendent? No. It was a very good slice of pizza, and the thin, dense, nutty crust was very impressive. Still, I wondered, is that all there is? Has buzz and momentum caused people to come from all corners of New York, not to mention the world, and wait in long lines for a non-transcendent, very good slice of pizza?

I finished the slice. There was no square pie in sight. I waited. People came and went, some for slices, some for whole pies to go. At about ten to four there was still no square pie in sight. A regular pie had just come out and, miraculously, there were still a couple of slices left after all the pre-orders were taken care of. I decided to claim one, to eat while I waited for my square. I ate it. It was very good, just like the last one. Still, I wasn't convinced it was worth all the trouble.

By 4 PM I had been there 45 minutes and still no square. So my quick, early slice was really part of the test. I now had endured the famous Di Fara 45-minute wait, wanting to try both types of pie, but I also had the option of leaving, relatively sated, and being able to say I had made the pilgrimmage. That just wouldn't do. I was determined to try a square. I figured I had waited 28 years to go back; a couple of more minutes wouldn't kill me.

There was no square because Dom kept putting regular pies in the oven and hadn't started on a square in all the time I'd been there. Then some people came in and ordered a square pie to go. Dom's daughter asked him, "Are you going to do a square next? There are people waiting for slices, and there's another one to go." Dom kept working on round pies, and every five minutes his daughter reminded him that people were waiting for squares.

I started talking to some of the people who were waiting. A couple of guys who had been there almost as long as me were also waiting for square slices. One lived in Manhattan, but his friend was visiting from Dublin. The guy who had ordered the square pie to go, a former Brooklynite, had driven from Long Island with his teenage daughter. After Di Fara's they were off to Coney Island. I have no idea where they planned to eat their pizza.

Finally, at close to 4:30, Dom got the message and started working on a square pie. The crusts for the square pies are now partially pre-baked, apparently a recent change that keeps them from tying up the oven too long. Dom lifted the crust from the pan and poured a copious quantity of extra-virgin olive oil under it. Then he added the sauce and cheeses on top. Then it went in the oven. By this time I had been there for about an hour and fifteen minutes—during off-peak.

In a very hot oven, with the crust mostly pre-baked, it doesn't take too long to cook a square pie, once Dom gets around to it, that is. Dom's daughter served me my slice and I took it back to the table. It was oily and messy, so I used a fork and knife on it. I took a bite.

It was transcendent. It was unique. It was delicious.

Now for a disclaimer. While I like pizza, I'm not a pizza fanatic. I've enjoyed pizzas in Italy, but I don't tend to order them too often when I'm there. I also prefer Turkish pides and Alsatian tartes flambées to pizza. Still, as far as pizza goes, I can't think of any I've had that was better than the square slice at Di Fara. The major difference between the two kinds of pie is apparently the sauce. For the square Dom uses a sauce that has been simmered with prosciutto or pancetta. I think it is the heartiness of this sauce, along with the way the cheeses marry on top of it that perhaps makes the noticeable difference. In addition, Dom added fresh basil to the square slices, which gave another dimension to the flavor.

So now I'm a Di Fara's true believer, but a sectarian of the square. Nonetheless, It might be some time before I go back. Like I said, I'm not a pizza fanatic—just a humble pilgrim.

Haiku Version

DiFara Pizza on Urbanspoon


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Peter, I'd like to check out Di Fara next time I pass through Brooklyn, which I do every visit to see my folks. Seems worth a pilgrimage to me.


4:00 PM  
Blogger Marc said...

I need to do a comparison test one of these days, to see how Di Fara, Grimaldi's, Joe's, John's, and Patsy's stack up against one another. Grimaldi's is about the best I've had anywhere, but I keep hearing how good Di Fara is...

2:46 PM  
Blogger Jeannie said...

di fara's is the best pizza i've ever had. and i've been to italy and was born and raised in ny

9:44 AM  
Blogger Slice said...

This is one of the best things I've read about Di Fara in a long while. It captures almost everything about the Di Fara experience -- from trying to go on an off hour, to the maddening wait for pies and slices, to Dom's daughter nudging him to make pies. And of course, the deliciousness of the food itself. Thanks for this great report, Peter.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You must have a higher standard for "transcendant" than I do! Dom usually puts fresh basil on the regular pies, too. I don't think I've ever tried the square (too much crust), and I hadn't realized they were made with meat sauce, so I guess I won't.

5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Pete,

I passed DiFara's the other day, and they were shut down by the Dept. of Health, no doubt a result of the KFC/Taco-Bell scandal that caused a sweep last month, in which 250 NYC restaurants were closed. They had a sign in the window ironically saying that the Health Dept. was doing a "good" job, and that as soon as they got the massive paperwork task out of the way, they‘d be open again for business. DiFara’s was never known for attention to cleanliness. Years ago, the peeling paint chips from the ceiling added a certain flavor to the pizza, before they put a new coat on the place. Although I never visited their rest room, it was a rumpred to be contender for the filthiest of any eating establishment on Ave. J. The long-gone Old Dutch diner, located about a block away near the subway, was a close contender for this achievement.

Bill Smith

11:17 PM  
Blogger Brian Olewnick said...

Pete, We went there last Wednesday with Jon, Keith and Julien (Ottavi), the first time for all of us. We arrived about 2:30 PM, ordered two pies (a round "special" and a square with pepperoni and garlic), luckily secured a table, sat down and waited.

Keith and I got a huge kick watching Dom prepare his pies, the care he took, the extra second or two he allowed to give his work a last glance to make sure everything was proper, the scissoring of the fresh basil. Great stuff.

About an hour and fifteen minutes later, the pies arrived. In our case, the unanimous opinion was that the round pie won high honors, a great, messy pizza with a wonderful crust. The square was very good (including whole garlic cloves) but not quite in the same league. (We did notice a general difference in sauce taste.)

Great place, glad I finally made it there.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

There are the Di Fara round-slicers and the square-slicers, just like Swift's big-enders and little-enders. I remain a square-slicer.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's all about 'the crunch'.

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Domenico De Marco of Di Fara Pizza makes a superior pie. With a porcini mushroom topping, it's perhaps the best in the city.

1:51 AM  
Anonymous Rebeca said...

In Italy, practically every pizzeria has a sit down restaurant in the back room. They all serve pasta and they almost all are great places for dinner. The food is carefully cooked, the portions large and the prices much lower than the Restorante’s or the Trattoria’s.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Di Fara's pizza has to be the best pizza I have ever tasted. (I'm a pizzaholic) The blend of cheeses (grated fresh for each pie!!), mouth watering tomatoes, charred crust, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, a final confetti of fresh basil and sprinkling of Parmesan cheese all blend together to form a pie that is made from the heart. My mouth waters on the keyboard as I type. The calzones are a work of art and are equally as good as the pizza.
As far as John's on Bleeker, I don't know what all the hype is about. I've tried it a few times and I am always very disappointed. It is not one fourth as good as Difara's.
My ranking:
1. Difara's
2. Lombardi's
3&4 Nick's in Forest Hills & Grimaldi's in Brooklyn.

I've yet to get to Patsy's Pizza in East Harlem.

5:33 PM  
Blogger VegasBound said...

I agree wholeheartedly. The round are good, if not okay. The squares are to die for. People wait all day for rounds, but those in the know wait for squares.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Brad said...

DiFara was also my place growing up and I too left in 78...maybe we're the same person? DiFara is a complete experience. I love watching Dom make the pies, never rushed and seeing him take them out of the oven bare handed is a sight. I will rhapsodize to anyone within earshot when the subject of great pizza comes up. However, to be fair, Spumoni Garden's square does give DiFara a run for their money. Sausage, pepper and onion. extraordinary!

2:11 AM  

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