Tuesday, October 27, 2009

My NY Pizza Adventure, Part 2 - Di Fara

1424 Avenue J
Brooklyn, NY 11230
(718) 258-1367

Emerging from the subway tunnel, I strolled down the dark, debris-strewn Brooklyn avenue and saw my destination on the corner ahead: Di Fara. Its wraparound sign read simply Di Fara • Pizza • Italian Heros, as common as any number of cheap sub joints across the country. It lacked fancy gimmicks, neon, or any other visible means of drawing in customers, at least from an aesthetic point of view.
But the smell...
The air around Di Fara was rich with the scent of baked dough and melting cheese, as enticing a lure as anything I can imagine. Much has been written on the internet of the long lines at Di Fara stretching out the front door, and with the tantalizing smell of pizza clinging to the street corner like this, I knew now these tales had to be more than mere myth.
Surprisingly though, there wasn't much of a line now, around 8pm. I opened the front door and stepped inside to find only three or four people at the counter. Incredible! As it happened, that number quickly grew to about twenty in the span of time I was there, so thankfully I got in my order before the rush.
Di Fara is notorious for the complete lack of structure when it comes to serving its customers. To call it a line is a compliment: it's a shifting mass of people, a cluster of sociopathic minds and a total disregard for common courtesy, so large that it has no choice but to form some semblance of a "line" that more closely mimics an amoeba. Customers crowd the counter in a state of utter chaos, elbowing others aside to get their order in first.
As I said, I missed all that by a brief amount of time, thank God. For a while, I was able to just stand at the counter and watch Dominic DeMarco go to work.
I won't delve into Dominic's history here--you can read A Slice of Heaven or check out the Slice blog for that. I'll leave it at this: Dom DeMarco is 72 and has been making pizza for 50 of those years. He's spent 45 of them at this Brooklyn location, making every single pie himself. Let me say that again: he makes every single pie himself. That night one of his sons was helping him grate the cheese and slice the pies, but apart from that, only Dominic touched the pizzas. He's slow, almost comedically slow, but watching him make pizza is akin to watching a great artist transform a blank canvas into a breathtaking landscape right before your eyes, or a sculptor bring lifelike human features to a formless lump of clay. You're mesmerized.
Pies come in two varieties at Di Fara: round and square. The round pie is your typical New York pizza, with large, crisp-bottomed slices. The square pie is a sort of Sicilian/grandma-style hybrid, with a thicker crust and more sauce. Both are cooked in Dom's multi-tiered gas oven, with several pies in there at any one time. Dom watched them all, adjusting their location when necessary, while his son kept track of how many pies were currently inhabiting each tier.
What separates Di Fara from most of the other slice joints in America is that its slices are not pre-made and then reheated in the oven when a customer orders one. Instead, they come directly from a fresh-cut whole pie, and they don't last long. The wait for a slice can be excruciating, as you must contend with everyone else waiting for one, as well as the people who have ordered a whole pie. How discouraging it is to see one of Dom's enormous pizzas come out of the oven piping hot, only to have the entire thing disappear into a box and be handed over to someone else! Bastards!
I started with one of the regular slices while I waited for the next square pie to cook, and by now I had been waiting there at the counter about, oh, I'd say half an hour. I was famished, even though I'd gorged myself on pizza at the Pieman's Craft event earlier that day. Then it happened: Dominic pulled out one of the regular plain pies and set it not in a to-go box, but on a tray. This is it, I told myself. Here it comes.
Before Dom sends the pie out, he drizzles more olive oil onto it (the second application of olive oil, it must be noted--the first is applied before the pie enters the oven), spreads a generous handful of the grated padano on top, sprinkles some fragrant oregano around, and brings out his kitchen shears to snip fresh basil on top. Only then does the pizza cutter make its appearance, and when Dom mans it, each lateral slice is made deliberately, carefully, so that each slice is as close to being the same size as every other slice as possible.
Though my slice was so hot it was steaming, I foolishly bit straight into it and scorched the roof of my mouth. Pizza burn...how embarrassing. I should know better. After giving the slice a minute to cool off, I tried again.
I knew almost immediately that it was the finest NY-style slice in the city.
There is so much right about this pizza, I don't know where to begin. I suppose the biggest contribution to its greatness had to be the crust. It's crunchy, but not cracker-crunchy; that is to say, the inner layer is dense and chewy. This crust tastes incredible. It's salty, but not overly salty, evoking the qualities of the very best bread. I loved it, and could have eaten it without any of the toppings.
The rest of the ingredients blend together so well that, with the exception of the overabundance of olive oil, it's hard to imagine any component being omitted. The sauce is vibrant, chunky, and tastes of the freshest tomatoes. The mozzarella/padano combination is salty, gooey, and just the right thickness for the crust, neither weighing it down nor leaving you wanting for more. The freshly snipped basil is potent and plays well with the cheese and tomatoes. The olive oil, while heavy-handed, worked its way into the other ingredients and tied everything together. This was one outstanding piece of pizza.
Another twenty minutes later and I finally got my square slice. This crust is markedly different from the one on the round pizza. Dom pours several ounces of olive oil onto the square pizza pan this pie cooks in, transforming the bottom of the crust into a thick layer of crunch. The majority of the slice is comprised of Dom's tomato sauce, and I think this is this slice's downfall. It just overshadows everything else, even the buffalo mozzarella and grated padano that has been nicely browned on top. Perhaps if I had ordered some meat on this slice it would have shifted the balance a bit, but in its current form, it was just too much tomato sauce for me.
Still hungry after all the pizza I had eaten at the Pieman's Craft event and the two slices I had had here, I wanted one more of the regular slices to end the evening on a high note, and lucky for me my dining companion Christa managed to cajole two girls at a neighboring table to sell us one of their slices at the same price Dom charges: five bucks. They seemed shocked to even be asked, but in the end they sold us the slice, God bless 'em.
I'm glad I got that second slice, because it revealed how wildly inconsistent Dom's pies are. While the first slice had bordered the verge of being too oily, this slice had blown right past that into the realm of Far Too Oily. It had more oregano on it than the first slice, and somehow the crust on this slice was even more flavorful than the first! It was so good, in fact, that I wasn't bothered by the deluge of extra olive oil whatsoever. This was just an amazing, amazing slice of pizza.
I probably could have eaten two more slices, but I had not the constitution to brave the crowded counter again. It was probably for the best, if for no other reason than that day's skyrocketing caloric intake...
As I mentioned earlier, Dom charges $5 a slice here, the highest of any slice in the city. Many have asked if the slices are worth that. I can say in no uncertain terms that the regular slices are, unquestionably, worth every cent, especially if you order the whole pie. I wouldn't order the square slice again, but I'm still dreaming about the regular plain slices. I doubt very much that anyone else makes a better pie in that style. May Dom live a thousand years, and may he bless us with this unparalleled pizza for every one of them!
To be concluded...


  1. That pretty well summarizes it! The sauce and mozzarella were sublime. The care and love that went into the pizzas was unbelievable. My chief complaint with the pizza was that the toppings overwhelmed the crust and made it immediately soggy. I never got the required crunch that I find to be absolutely neccessary in a great pizza. The outside crust was also a little dense and lacking any kind of air bubbles. Loved the flavor, didn't like the crust very much.

  2. Yeah, from what I hear, the pies at Di Fara are wildly inconsistent. One day the pizzas might be great, the next day less so. I'm glad I was lucky enough to catch him on a good (actually, GREAT) day!

  3. That review is so thorough! I just posted a review on my blog:

  4. They were closed down by the health department several months ago for numerous violations.

  5. @Clay B: Yeah, I saw that. Luckily they're back up and running and making pizzas again! Wish I weren't 3,000 miles away.

  6. Good to hear. I thought it might be permanent.