This is one of those confessional stories that I normally would be extremely selective about who I tell. 99.9% of the population just wouldn't get it. Frankly, they'd see me as a glutton. Or a buffoon. Probably both.
But, hey, I figure if you're still checking in on my blog after I haven't posted for a month, then there's a good chance that you might be part of that 0.1% that would be sympathetic to my
You see, I missed my flight yesterday for a couple of slices of pizza. Plain. Cheese. Pizza. No toppings. The menu posted on the grease-stained wall calls it simply "regular."
My odyssey began at 11 yesterday morning in Manhattan. What am I doing in NYC? This is a story about pizza, so where else would I be? Really, though, my darling wife N is there for the summer. Something to do with graduate school, a masters degree, training for her promotion into school administration, yadda, yadda. All I know is I missed her, so I visited her over the long holiday weekend. More on the rest of the trip another day.
At 11, I departed the place where we were staying on the Upper West Side, suitcase in tow, umbrella poised over my head. I dodged puddles, ignored the light rain, and hopped aboard the A train to JFK. I learned the hard way that a few sprinkles are enough to grind the subway system to a halt, so it took 2 hours to reach the airport. Then again, the ticket only cost $2, so I can't complain. I checked in my bag, leaving me 4 hours to grab a bite to eat in Brooklyn before my 5:30 flight began boarding.
4 hours. Seems like plenty of time for a couple of slices of pizza, no?
The object of my quest wasn't just any pizza, but you probably suspected that already. Although I didn't know this at the time, my Grail has been universally praised in virtually every publication that writes about food, New York, and/or pizzas (even the London-based Financial Times). This pizzeria receives a 27 in the most recent Zagat Survey, the same score as Jean Georges (!!??). Pizza blogger Adam of Slice has written about it so often, it is its own category. It is featured prominently in Ed Levine's pizza guide.
I, however, had only read about it in Molly's memorable post last September on her food blog, Orangette. Her story and accompanying photos were enough to convince me that I needed to visit DiFara Pizza.*
From the airport, it took me 3 transfers and over an hour to reach the pizzeria. When I last checked my watch, it was well before 3:00, leaving me an ample 2 hours to eat and get back to the airport. [At the time, I had no idea that waits at DiFara routinely exceed an hour.] All I knew is that there were only about 10 people in front of me. Shortly after I arrived, 2 of them tossed up their arms in disgust and left, a gesture which should have given me pause, but instead strengthened my resolve. Mind you, I was ravenous, having eaten little more than a croissant for breakfast.
I was also completely mesmerized by what I saw before me. Time had ceased to have any relevance.
The aroma of bubbling tomato sauce, fresh basil, and melting cheese blindsided me as soon as I stepped into the diminutive corner store. Like the truffle pig digging furiously in the dirt, I was driven mad with desire. DiFara's walls are painted tomato sauce orange, every square inch of space devoted to press clippings singing the praises of its pizza. The décor is classic dive, a half dozen grease-smeared, crumb topped folding tables surrounded by a few wobbly chairs. Little pots of fresh herbs - Greek oregano, basil, rosemary - sprout off the counters and in the front windowsill, where passersby occasionally place orders for an Italian ice (sorbetto) or antipasti like stuffed zucchini flowers.
A 12-foot white tile counter divides the room in two. On the one side, are the surprisingly patient New Yorkers, who were, like me, entranced and salivating. On the other is the master pizzaiolo, Domenic DeMarco. The 69-year-old DeMarco goes about his business, in no particular hurry, serenely crafting pizzas one at a time just as he has for the past 47 years, 7 days a week. This is a one-person operation. No one else touches the pizzas. If he's sick or needs foot surgery, as was the case in April, DiFara closes. A few of his 7 grown children help him by taking orders and doing other tasks behind the scenes, like making sauce and dough and cleaning dishes.
DeMarco makes 2 kinds of pizza, round (thin crust) and square (thicker crust Sicilian-style, cooked in a blackened rectangular pan). For each round pizza, I repeat, made one at a time, he strolls into the back, emerging with a well-proofed blob of dough. He dusts the table with a big handful of Colavita brand Italian Tipo "00" flour, then gently but purposefully prods the dough with all of his fingertips until it roughly approximates a circle. He picks the dough up once or twice to stretch it, gravity causing it to ooze like a Dalí clock. He lays the gooey dough (the wettest I've ever seen) onto his wooden peel, unbothered (satisfied, even) by its amoebic shape and twisted, tattered edges.
Onto the dough DeMarco swirls a generous 12-ounce ladel of barely cooked red sauce made from a combination, I've read, of fresh and imported canned San Marzano tomatoes with basil. Next come the 3 kinds of cheese. First, he uses the slicer side of a well-worn box grater to reduce a block of low moisture, full fat deli mozzarella into slivers which he spreads out on the pie. Then he grabs a fist-sized ball of fresh fior di latte mozzarella (or, some days, mozzarella di bufala from his family's hometown in the province of Caserta, Italy) and crushes it into 6 or 8 chunks (the proportion of cheese looks to be about 2 or 3 parts deli mozzarella to 1 part fresh). He then drizzles the pie with Filippo Berio olive oil from a long-spouted copper pitcher before he slides it into the (purportedly) 700˚F inferno (nearly 400˚C).
After a few minutes, DeMarco pulls out the pizza, its cheese and sauce now bubbling volcanically, the edges and bottom of its crust scorched in spots. He showers it with the third cheese, a young parmigiano reggiano (sometimes grana padano) which has been grated from a hand crank rotary grater affixed to his work table. For his final flourish, DeMarco uses a pair of scissors to snip a bunch of fresh basil onto the top of the pizza, and then slices it into 8 wedges.
I watched this process over and over and over again as I waited for my 2 slices. But really, I could have easily whiled away the whole day in that shop without a complaint, observing the master artisan and listening to local Brooklynites' comments. One man stopped DeMarco from snipping basil onto his round pizza to go. "No green leaves. I have to pick them off or the kids won't touch it." DeMarco quietly shot back: "Don't come crying back to me when your pizza doesn't taste right."
Was the pizza worth the wait? Was it worth missing my flight home? An emphatic YES! The cheeses, olive oil, and sauce co-mingled into a soupy mess, but played off and balanced each other perfectly. The tomato sauce, infused with basil and Greek oregano, had just the right degree of tanginess. The milk flavor of the fresh mozzarella shone through, while the reggiano added its distinctive salty nuttiness. The crust was magnificent, proving that you don't need a wood fire to make a perfect pizza. It was crisp on the outside and pleasantly chewy within, exhibiting irregular air pockets like a loaf of ciabatta.
Still blissfully high from my pizza, I stood outside DiFara for 5 or 10 minutes, slowly slurping on a lemon Italian ice, dreamily hoping I might be able to hail a cab. Not a single one passed in that time. I glanced at my watch. An hour had passed since I had arrived. "Oh, it's 4:00. Don't I have to be somewhere?" Panic slowly gurgled up as it dawned on me that I may miss my flight.
After a series of long delays on each subway line (curse the MTA!), frantic cell phone cries for help to N, and a futile sprint through the airport, I arrived too late, drenched in sweat. Fortunately, N got through to the airline 2 minutes before the flight left, so I didn't lose any money and was able to get on a flight home today for no extra charge.
Would I do it again? In a heart beat. You never know when you will again be able to witness a master craftsman like Dominic DeMarco. In an article that appeared in the New York Times a year ago, DeMarco shared his philosophy, saying something I find very inspiring, something which makes me glad I missed my flight.
"Pizza has become considered a fast food. This one is slow food. Anything you do, when you do it too fast, it's no good. The way I make a pizza takes a lot of work. And I don't mind work."
* DiFara Pizza
1424 Avenue J (at E. 15th Street)
Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn
Subway: Avenue J stop on the Q Line
I felt too much respect to interrupt DeMarco by taking lots of photos, a decision which I later regretted. Fortunately, others weren't so shy and there are countless photos of Dominic DeMarco and DiFara on the Web. In fact, thanks to Jason Perlow, the founder of eGullet, you too can while away hours watching the gently stooping DeMarco make pizzas. Perlow filmed the master in action as he assembled round and square pizzas. You can watch the 4-minute DiFara video (Flash required) which plays in a nonstop loop, or peruse his excellent still photos on his blog, Off the Broiler.