17.Mar.2010 at 17 | Demian
I finally made it to Di Fara Pizza on Friday. After hearing about it for so many years. I finally felt pious enough to make the pilgrimage. Actually, the boss was taking the day off so instead of her hanging around the apartment all day playing games with the mini boss and keeping me from getting any work done… I was inspired to put the wheels on the whole operation and turn it into an outing. So as soon as nap time number one was over (for mini boss, not me) we hit the subway and eventually found ourselves at the ‘Avenue J’ stop on the ‘Q’ train in Brooklyn. (People have yards out here?!) And there, not a block away from the subway stop, was the legendary Di Fara Pizza. The faded sign on the outside also mentioned ‘Italian Heros’. Funny. I wonder when an Italian Hero was last made here. Probably been years. Or… now that I am thinking about it… was the sign referring to the owners?
All jokes aside, it was raining so we hurried into this renowned pizza shrine as we were downright reverent. And hungry. Inside there were easily twenty people standing in relative silence patiently waiting for their pizza. It turns out that a stroller works pretty well as a people plough so we managed to ‘excuse me’ our way up to the counter without too much trouble. My first welcome surprise was that the woman that took my order was pleasant and smiling. Much different than the ‘Pizza Nazi’ attitude I was fully prepared to endure. I quickly placed our order for one regular pie. That’s right… a regular pie. No messing around with fussy toppings and risk upsetting the delicate ingredient proportion equilibrium. I wanted to let the pizza master be the pizza master and just do a pizza the way he does it best.
We then proceeded to wait
But all this waiting is a typical experience. Dom makes each pie by hand so the production output is a little on the slow side. But you can tell by watching him that he cares about each pizza and about each ingredient that goes into it. It was so refreshingly surprising to see how nice Dom and the two daughters that were working with him that day were to all of the customers. They really didn’t have to be. Us people will still line up for this superb pizza regardless of the staff’s mood. But the women were kind and pleasant to everyone. Even those that checked on their order’s status multiple times. And Dom, as he snipped fresh basil and sprinkled a handful of shredded grana padano onto each finished pie, made a point of asking, “Is this yours?” to the customer standing at the counter. Even that little gesture of the master looking the person in the eye, connecting his pizza to the person and then passing his creation on to them I thought was a very nice touch. It is obvious that Dom cares about his pizza. And he cares about his customers.
The Di Fara customers, speaking of, are the wild card of the whole experience. Waiting for a Di Fara pizza is serious business. People travel long distances to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in this tattered little shop. And the combination of aching feet, politeness fatigue, and ravenous hunger can put nerves on edge. For the most part everyone on the afternoon we went was great. Civil, polite and obedient in observing the social contract. But there were a couple mumblers in the bunch. “I can’t believe it is taking this long.” “I was here before that guy, why is he getting a pizza?” Etc. Etc. All to be expected for waits this long on an empty stomach. It only becomes awkward when the mumblers turn to you and try to drag you into their low-decibel monologue. Best to be prepared to smile and nod sympathetically to whoever looks at you. And then pretend to be distracted by something else.
The wait for our pizza ended up being an hour and twenty minutes. After an hour on the train. And then an hour on the train to get home. A total of three hours and twenty minutes of pilgrimage operational process. All for a pizza eating experience that lasted maybe fifteen minutes. Sound crazy? Definitely. Was it worth it? Absolutely.
The Di Fara pizza is most certainly deserving of its reputation for being one of the very best in New York City. So simple yet so transcendent. The multidimensional crust the perfect base to a compilation of top-notch ingredients. The center dough thin and chewy with hints of crispiness while the outer crust billows into pillowy sections of crispy crunch giving way to a chewy bread-like interior. With bits of char scattered about as flinty taste counter-point. And the three-cheese combination is perfectly balanced in composition and proportion. The pizza’s melted base of both fresh and aged mozzarella gives the pie a good depth of character to build upon. And the addition of a handful of grated grana padano scattered when the pie comes out of the oven is pure genius. As the pizza is eaten, the diner is able to experience the grana padano as it struggles through its transition between two states. From its raw state of unadulterated sharp saltiness to the oozy comfort of the cheese in melted form, each bite has the potential to capture not three but four cheese taste characteristics. For the price of three!
All of the cheeses and the sublime dough are accompanied by taste accents from top-notch ingredients. The tomato sauce is San Marzano. The olive oil is good Italian stuff which Dom drizzles, nay… douses, the pie with both before and after the oven. Again expanding on the potential of taste character from both fresh to cooked. And the addition of fresh cut basil at the end caps the whole taste experience off with a lovely herbaceous high note and aroma that would be otherwise muted and largely lost if the herb was allowed to bake with the pie. All of these high quality ingredients expertly composed and transformed to form a delicious pizza whose taste is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s Di Fara pizza magic. And totally worth the trip.
But, after personally witnessing Dom DeMarco’s sublime pizza operation for myself I think that I have figured out the secret to the whole Di Fara’s experience. Wanna know the secret? Here it is:
There is no secret.
There is no ancient coal oven imparting mystical smokey-charred taste. There is no secret recipe. Sure the dough is great but there are other pizza places in town that make great dough. And, really, dough ingredients are so simple that there is not much room for adjustment. There is no secret ingredient added behind the scenes. Heck, you can stand there and watch the guy make every single pizza. No, there is nothing that Dom DeMarco knows that you don’t have access to yourself.
But that is just it. The thing that makes Di Fara so good is that they use only great ingredients to make their pizzas. Great tomatoes, great cheeses, good olive oil and fresh basil. And they don’t skimp. Anyone could use these same ingredients. On the long train ride home I was thinking that any crummy pizza place in the city could change up their operation and make killer pizzas very similar to Di Fara’s. But they don’t. Why not? That is what is so maddening about it. If you have a good pizza oven and some basic business insight, great pizza that people will clamour for is within your reach. But very few pizza makers understand this. So people like me have to travel from all over the place out to sleepy Midwood, Brooklyn for some of the very best pizza in the city. In the country possibly.
Dom DeMarco’s genius is a straight forward one. Just use great ingredients to make great pizza and the rest of the business equation will fall into place. That is what he does every day that Di Fara’s is open. Pizza is Dom DeMarco’s soul focus. His passion. His meditation. And maybe, now that I think about it, that is the actual secret behind Di Fara’s. Hidden in plain sight for everyone to see. The tiny details that make up the process. How the dough is treated, the careful proportion of sauce and cheese, the length of time a pizza spends in the oven. How often it is turned while baking. The right sized handful of grana padano and just the right motion to scatter it. These sorts of little motions and details that have a cumulative effect on the final product. All of which can, of course, be learned and recreated. But it is more than just learned behavior that Mr. DeMarco uses in making his pizzas. He actually cares about each and every pie that moves across his counter is and shaped by his hands. And he cares about the people eating his pizzas. His taking the time to speak to each person that he hands a pizza over to is a subtle, yet very powerful part of the experience. It is obvious to any attentive observer that he loves what he does. And it is evident in his pizzas. Maybe that is the real secret behind Di Fara’s Pizza. A pilgrimage worth taking.