Saturday, August 15, 2009

Di Fara: A New York Pizza Institution

Di Fara Pizza is not fast food. It's been called the best pizza in New York by pizza connoisseurs, Zagat, the Village Voice, New York Magazine, New York Times, chefs like Anthony Bourdain, and your average New Yorker that loves pizza. We heard that last month, Di Fara raised its price from $4 to $5 a slice; the only place in New York that charges that much for a slice. We also heard that people will wait hours for just one slice. We were just too curious not to go so we finally made our way to Midwood, Brooklyn last week to see what this mystic pizza was all about.

Di Fara has been owned and operated by Domenico DeMarco since 1964 after DeMarco moved to New York from Caserta, Italy in 1959. DeMarco is the only person that makes each pizza pie (not even his children are allowed to make it). When he's not available to make the pizza, Di Fara shuts its doors. Di Fara is one of the only non-Kosher businesses left in the neighborhood, even fast food chains like Dunkin Donuts is rabbi blessed. Unlike most pizza joints, Di Fara does not deliver its pizza.

When we rolled in around 1 pm on a Thursday, there was a crowd of people waiting (as we expected), and we weren't sure who was waiting for what. We stood next to a man who told us how to order. He also mentioned that the first time he went to Di Fara's, he waited an hour until he realized that everyone else had ordered, then waited another three hours for his pizza. But he said it was worth the wait, which is why he came back. We went to the front to order as you would a drink at a bar, as there is no line and you have to nudge your way past the crowd. At this place, there is only one pizzatender.

It seems a lot of folks that walked in were confused and kept asking us where to order. There was one person taking everyone's orders (probably DeMarco's daughter) and she wrote down the orders on a paper plate and crossed off the names of people who got their pizza. She does not have an easy job. Don't even think about asking her how long it will take before you get your pizza. One man who seemed like a regular there was waiting for three pizza pies (wow $90), and he tried to tell her to tell Mr. DeMarco that the pizza at the top oven was burning and to get it out. And she responded "I can't tell him what to do." So he shut up and just waited. And that's what you learn to do at Di Fara. You can't complain here. It's like an unwritten restaurant policy.

So one person manning the front and one person making the pizza = a constant crowd of people waiting in a hot, small space. The worst part of waiting wasn't the amount of time spent there. It was actually entertaining to step to the front and watch Mr. DeMarco in action. Equally entertaining was watching the people come in and out of the place. The worse part of waiting inside DiFara was the extremeley strong smell of smoke and gas coming from the gas ovens. It was hard to breathe and the smell was enough to make you feel like you were going to get lung cancer. We don't know how Mr. DeMarco manages to inhale those gas fumes all day long five days a week. At the same time, you don't want to leave DiFara and come back later since you're hopeful that your pizza will come out sooner and fearful that you'll miss your chance at your pie if you're not there when your name is called. So you wait inside. Patiently. Breathing stink gas.

This is the small area where the pizza is made. Nothing looks modern. Nothing looks like it's been "made" to look like a pizza place.

It's hard to see in this photo, but there's a photo of Di Fara with Rob Reiner. There's also a great portrait of Di Fara making pizza.

And here's THE Domenico DeMarco, one of the world's last pizza artisans. His arms were covered with flour and his apron stained with tomato sauce. He was a calm and gentle looking man that never showed a sign of stress or fatigue as a mob of people just stood in front of him, staring at him and following his every move. Of all the photos we took of him, we liked this one of him most standing beside his portrait.

As we said, time went by quicker when you watch him create his masterpiece. Carefully working the dough then spreading the tomato sauce gently and evenly.

Next, meticulously placing the Buffalo Mozzarella. He didn't rush through the pizzas. Each pizza went through a careful, slow process. That's why we were all waiting a long time and that's why this pizza can't be categorized as fast food.

Then pouring a generous amount of olive oil. I heard him yell to his daughter "more Bertolli oil" and she immediately filled his oil tin with the extra virgin gold.

Putting it in the hot oven while checking on the progress of the other pizza pies.

Once the boiling pizza is taken out of the oven, he sprinkles Parmesan Reggiano on top of the piping hot pie. The Parmesan instantly melts into the pie creating two layers of distinct cheese flavors. It was classic to watch the faces of the people as the bubbling pizzas came out of the oven and were put in front of us. We looked like a pack of wild dogs ready to pounce.

Then he cuts up fresh basil imported from Israel on top. Lastly, he pours a ton of olive oil for the second time as the finishing touch. What impressed us was that here's this 72-year-old man that didn't take so much as a one-minute break the whole time we were there - not to drink a sip of water, not to use the restroom, not to chat with customers or his kids, nothing. He just worked non-stop like a machine. He wasn't unfriendly (we saw him smile at customers), but he was definitley in a pizza making zone. Without looking at the crowd, it's like he knew there was a large crowd waiting for his pizza pies, and he didn't want to waste so much as a second. At the same time, he wans't about to compromise the taste of his pizza by rushing. He definitley had a system down that he's perfected over the years. One thing to note was that we did, however, see a few pizza pies burnt. The pies that were too burnt were cut up for individual slices for sale.

There's only a few tables in the small back area, but we were lucky enough to grab two seats after waiting a long time. While waiting, we were checking the reactions of other people that were lucky to score a table and eat there. It was funny to see a group of guys just get into complete silence mode as they finally ate their pie. One of the guys said he had driven all the way from Virginia to eat a DiFara pizza. He said on his first visit to Di Fara, he rated it a 7 out of 10. On this second visit, he gave it a 10. But another lady, who only ordered one slice, said she thought Grimaldi's was better. Finally, after waiting patiently for 2 hours and 45 minutes, we heard our name. We paid $25 for a whole regular circle pie (at 8 pieces, each piece is about $3 so not as expensive as just buying one slice). The one good thing about ordering by the slice is that you don't have to wait as long for it (probably half the time). But we quickly forgot about the long wait when we opened the box to witness this beautiful thing . . .

So what justifies paying $5 for one slice of pizza or $25 to $30 for the whole pie? Mr. DeMarco insists on using only fresh dough, on importing his tomatos from Salerno and his Mozzarella from Caserta, and bringing in his basil from Israel. More importantly, it's the unique fact that he makes each pizza personally, no matter how long the line is, no matter how many of his (seven) children might be availalbe to work. He alone makes the pizza. He works hard. He looks proud of what he does. And it shows.

Before we ate a piece, we told each other that we were expecting to be disappointed because the expectation had already been too high. The only way is down. But when we saw and smelled our pie, we kind of already knew this one was going to be special. We ate one slice each in complete silence then smiled at each other. Words can't adequately describe how good the pizza was. It was unlike any pizza we've ever had. It was simple yet complex. The pizza was thin, but not soggy. The crust was crispy and slighlty burnt (as Mr. DeMarco said all true Italian pizza should be). The tomato sauce was both tangy and sweet. The basil was the freshest we've ever had (think fresher than the freshest basil you buy from the Farmer's Market). The combination of the different cheeses was in complete harmony. We loved that he sprinkled the extra Parmesan at the end. And at first we thought there was too much olive oil (since well, he puts more olive oil on this pizza than probably anyone else in this world), but it worked. This is far and away the best pizza we've ever tasted. Any other pizza we have after this is going to pale in comparison, which sucks for us since we're moving.

These two gentlemen who were waiting at the table next to us were hilarious. They even went across the street to buy a whole roll of paper towel, and kindly shared them with us. They said "you think these guys have time to refill the napkin dispensers? They don't even have time to drink water." After we ate our pizza, we stuck around to see their reactions. One of the guys who was visiting Di Fara for the first time (who looked like a cross between Woody Allen, David Letterman and Steve Guttenberg) said he was a self proclaimed pizza aficionado that's tried it all and said the Di Fara pizza was the best he's ever had. His friend from another part of Brooklyn said he comes to Di Fara and waits this crazy long wait because "the man's getting old, who knows how long he's going to be around for, no one makes it like him, you appreciate how hard he works, he doesn't even take a break." He shared the exact same sentiments as us. The poor guy had an allergic reaction to all of the smoke and had to run out for fresh air periodically, but as soon as their pie arrived all of his worries disappeared with each bite of homemade love.

It only takes 30 minutes by subway from Union Square to get to Di Fara. We understand why Manhattanites think it's too out of the way to visit Di Fara when there's a pizza place on every corner in Manhattan. But Di Fara isn't just another pizza place. It's a New York Pizza Instituion and Domencio DeMarco is a pizza legend in his own right. And yes it sucks to have to wait almost three hours for pizza, it's almost absurd in any other instance, but it's worth it. The time you spend waiting and watching is a pizza event.

A few things we recommend: eat before you step foot into Di Fara (you're not going to get your lunch or dinner during lunch or dinner time), order the regular pie (you don't need the extras like pepperoni or mushrooms), and eat it when it's hot. There's some great articles on Di Fara that you should read: A great 2004 New York Times article on the hard work that goes into making a Di Fara pizza, New York Time's recent article on the $5 price, and a Di Fara tutorial on Slice Pizza blog. Heaven!