How do I love thee, Dom DeMarco.? Let me count the ways. I love it how you tenderly shred your whole pieces of fresh buffalo mozzarella and scatter them with care around the pizza base. I love the way you unselfishly take out a whole, large bunch of fresh basil and scissor large leaf-cuts over the pie with the utmost generosity. I love how you manhandle your Grana Padano by freshly grating it and scattering over your bubbling masterpieces. And I love how you drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over your precious pies, and how you take your time to produce your genius, so that all around you wait in eager anticipation.
Yes, I have a man-crush on Domenico “Dom” DeMarco, the 72-year-old Italian-born owner and pizza-maestro of Di Fara, the no-frills pizzeria on Avenue J, a stone’s throw from the M train in the deep, dark Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood – an Italian needle in a haystack of Orthodox Jewish enterprises.
‘Real’ New York pizza is a dying breed in this pie-crazed city, and how much tradition we’ve lost is rarely apparent until you make a pilgrimage to the likes of this legendary NYC pizza joint, whose lore grows ever year. And as DeMarco widens an ever-growing gap from what should have been retirement age, his followers continually dread the day that he can no longer perform his solo act in front of his gas ovens.
And yes, I said gas. As I discover over and over again, from Naples to Sydney to New York, you don’t have to have wood fires or coal ovens to make some of the world’s best pizza. As DeMarco illustrates, you just need a blazing hot heat source (reported to be 750F/400C), the willingness to use the freshest ingredients, and the know-how to make the most of both. And maybe a last ingredient – time – a rarity in today’s go-go-go culture.
According to plan, our car-full of six eataholics – foodie friend Alex, New York Slop blogger Laura, sommelier-in-training Mark, chauffeur Justine, and Aussie Mark, from music duo The Hipstones – got there on a Friday at 2.30pm with the hopes of avoiding the lunch crowds and being a day ahead of the weekend hordes that round the block. As anticipated, there was no line at Di Fara, but that still didn’t stop us from earnestly waiting an hour for our two pies (yes, this is New York, we call them pies, get over it): one round of New York thinnish-crust pizza, and the other a tray of square Sicilian. If we were here on a Saturday, we would likely be waiting up to three hours as Dom prepares his works, as he always does: one at a time. They take as long as they take.
There are toppings at Di Fara, but in my mind, they’re a waste of the experience. There is so much flavour in the mozzarella (Domenico combines buffalo mozzarella shreds with slices of cow’s milk mozzarella), the flame-singed crust, the parmesan, the housemade sauce with chunks from whole Salerno tomatoes, the olive oil, and especially the vibrant basil (from Israel, says Epicurious, but I’ve also read that he grows his own in window boxes), that anything else would distract from the pure expression of perfectionism. And to say that the thin-crust pizza is better than the Sicilian is true, but it’s a matter of degrees. The Sicilian is more unique – it’s harder find this style done right amid the over-thick, bready imitators. But why choose? The luxury of enjoying the flavors and textures of both pizza types makes for a better, more varied experience.
Dom wasn’t easy to engage, as he worked patiently but ever-diligently, but I finally managed to mention to him that some of us had come from Australia and that knew about him from the other side of the world. He flashed me a rare smile, pleased that his work was being appreciated from so very far.
Of course, the big question about Di Fara is obvious. Within hours I was already asked: Is Di Fara the best pizza in New York? (Or in the US, or the world?) Well I haven’t been to Totonno’s in Coney Island or the original Patsy’s in East Harlem. Or to all of the new breed of pizza-crazed makers that have popped up in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Or to every pizza-mad city on this planet.
But I can say this: I’ve been to a disproportionate number of pizzerias in my time, from many edges of the world, and Dom DeMarco’s effort ranks among the very best, even if my recollections place him just a notch behind a mind-blowing pizza in Naples and my all-time favourites in New Haven, Connecticut. And Steven Shaw of eGullet might be right in saying the Di Fara’s may not be the best New York pizza, but rather the best example of what was once a common New York style that is now steadily becoming a lost art.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve never come across anyone who seems to care about their product as deeply, gives so much to his craft and has been maintaining that level of perfectionism for so long. Di Fara opened in 1964, the same year the Beatles broke it big in the US, “Dr Strangelove” appeared on movie screens, and Jackie O made her first public appearance after JFK’s assassination. I also don’t know anyone who continually defies the health department so that he can continue to use his bare hands to create… and has been shut down briefly a number of times for doing so. He was told to wear a hat, and gloves, but I saw neither on the day. DeMarco seems to suggest, “My art is my art and I won’t compromise for anything less.” And for that, Domenico DeMarco is deserving of his legendary status.
“I don’t intend to retire. But I want my kids to take over the place,” DeMarco told the New York Times in an interview a few years back. “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.”