I consider myself a pizza aficionado (or should I say snob) and have sampled many of the legends. For old-school, brick oven, coal-fired style I’ve been to original John’s of Bleecker Street, Grimaldi’s just over the Brooklyn Bridge, Patsy’s in East Harlem, Lombardi’s in SoHo, and the original Totonno’s in Coney Island. I’ve experienced the pleasures of the perfect New York “regular” slice at Joe’s on Bleecker. For Sicilian slices, there wasn’t much better than Sal’s in Mamaroneck. Back in my college days, I often ditched dorm dinner to drive over an hour for the clam pie at Frank Pepe’s in New Haven or a meatball “apizza” from Zuppardi’s in nearby West Haven. But I had never been to the much celebrated Di Fara’s Pizzeria in Midwood, Brooklyn.
The crowds waiting to eat at Di Fara are as legendary as the pizza. Di Fara definitely took planning; being open for lunch from 12 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. and then closed until 6 p.m. made the timing tough. Do you get there before six and hang out outside waiting for it to open? Do you time it so you arrive after the first wave has ordered? Or do you make Di Fara an afternoon-long lunch break? It all seemed too complicated until, finally, Gerry and I ventured to Midwood in 2007; leaving in the late afternoon hoping to arrive just as Di Fara’s opened for dinner. It just so happened that our group was scheduled to convene the following night at a traditional, not so celebrated place. What follows below is part one of what turned out to be an eating doubleheader.
Di Fara Pizza, 1424 Avenue J, Midwood, Brooklyn.
Gerry and I knew it would be a challenge. Zio couldn’t do it (the termites were beginning their early spring spawn and his talents were needed elsewhere). Mike from Yonkers claimed other commitments like a job. Eugene claimed other commitments such as working out, if that can possibly be believed. Rick was a Di Fara veteran and a hard-working executive; consecutive eating orgies might appear to be frivolous. That left only Gerry and I. We were braced for back-to-back expeditions to the outer boroughs and the culinary pleasures they promised starting with a long anticipated trip to the much hyped Di Fara followed by a trip to Queens and a Japanese place picked by Eugene called Yamakaze.
Normally we wouldn’t consider a food destination if we classified it as “much-hyped,” but for Di Fara we were willing to make an exception. Yes, the pizzeria had been ballyhooed in all the local publications, many claiming it to be the best pizza in the city. And after making the trek we found it surrounded by Kosher bakeries and grocery stores on Avenue J in the heart of Jewish-orthodox Midwood, Brooklyn. The exterior was non-descript, the interior cramped. The few tables inside were either occupied or empty, but for bits of congealed cheese, olive oil, sauce, and crust from possibly a generation of diners still on them. The walls, where the paint wasn’t peeling or crumbling, were covered with accolades from all the usual suspects: New York Magazine, Time Out New York, Newsday, the Daily News, The Times, along with a photo of Di Fara proprietor and master pizza maker Dominic DeMarco and his daughter with Rob Reiner, and a framed, and very apt quote credited to Mohandas Gandhi: “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
Gerry and I both were prepared for a wait. We knew Dom DeMarco took pride in making every pizza himself and his way, which was, so we heard, painstakingly methodical. There is no defined ordering system at Di Fara. When we walked in there were a number of people scattered around the counter. Was there a line to order? I asked but all I got in return were bemused smiles and shrugs. I took that to mean that there wasn’t.
But when Dominic’s daughter, who was the old man’s only help that evening, actually asked us what we wanted, we knew we had to be ready with a quick answer. That didn’t leave any time to peruse the options so Gerry and I went with the easiest: a regular “round” pie and two slices of “square.” And to our surprise, there were actually two hot square slices available as well as a just vacated, oil-streaked, tomato sauce-stained table. The slices would work as the perfect appetizer as we waited for our pie.
A stack of empty boxes that held cans of San Marzano tomatoes was piled next to the counter which I quickly attributed to the robust sauce on our “square” slices. When lifting the slice the olive oil slid gracefully over the cheese while the crust, cooked not in a wood-burning brick oven and despite being saturated by the oil, retained a crunchy, almost fried texture. Before even tasting the slice, Gerry, reflexively, added granulated garlic which he almost immediately regretted. The was addition totally superfluous.
So we devoured our slices and then began to wait. We had no idea who might have ordered before or after us. People began to fill the small confines, gathering around the counter. DeMarco’s daughter had disappeared into the back, presumably to prepare additional ingredients like sausage, pepperoni, onions, and mushrooms. When she returned, she didn’t immediately go to the counter to take orders but went about her business oblivious of the hordes that were forming.
I went out and bought a few beers for the wait and bagels from one of the kosher bakeries for the next morning’s breakfast. A half hour went by. A group of high school students who were there before us were still waiting for their pie. A man sitting and staring at the counter expectantly, also ahead of us, would occasionally get up, take a look at what was going on behind the counter only to return to his seat and resume his staring. The area around the counter was now three deep. Some were waiting for orders, others waiting to put in an order whenever the daughter got around to asking.
Our appetizer, the square slices, instead of holding off our appetites, increased it. We were ravenous. The daughter noticed us and checked her pad. She confirmed that our order had been placed. “Just a few more ahead of you,” she said. That was reassuring.
Forty-five minutes had passed. Our beers were gone. I was contemplating the bag of bagels. The high school kids finally got their pizza. We watched as Dominic, a bit stooped, accompanied the pie to the counter, hand grated parmesan cheese from a huge wedge, and sprinkled it on the pie, added a slather of olive oil from an old-fashioned spouted tin and then brought over a bunch of basil and using scissors, clipped a few leaves onto the pie. Gerry and I eyed the pizza as the kids began to eat. The man waiting next to us got up, made his way to the counter and tried to peer over it. Dominic noticed and nodded. The man acknowledged the nod. Progress. The next pizza out was his.
We were close. We had been waiting just over an hour when we got the nod from Dominic. Gerry got up and let Dominic prepare the pie the Di Fara way: a sprinkling of grated cheese, a few swirls of olive oil, and then the freshly scissor-cut basil. Gerry brought the pie to the table. We waited just a few moments for it to cool down while admiring its aesthetic perfection and then, despite hungry, envious eyes upon us, began to deliberately consume it, slice by slice, finishing in less than a quarter of the time of our wait for it to arrive.
It was large pie and despite its somewhat delicate crust, still heartier than the thin, coal-fueled oven pies from say, Patsy’s in Harlem or Totonno’s in Coney Island. which made finishing it in its entirety an accomplishment or a blatant display of gluttony, depending on your point of view. Gerry and I certainly believed it was the former. What was the point in taking a slice or two home? We could have been generous and shared a last slice with one of the many now waiting anxiously for DeMarco to make their pizza. But then who knew when we would ever return to Midwood and subject ourselves to the bitter and the sweet of Di Fara Pizza?
The pizza was extraordinary, but was it worth the long, confusing wait within Di Fara’s dingy, cramped confines? Di Fara requires work. You have to plan your visit, trying your best to avoid prime times, but, in a strange way, maybe the extra effort enhances the flavor and overall dining experience. Maybe Di Fara’s pizza would not taste so special if it were more accessible? If nothing else, it was something to think about on the long ride home.