Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Restaurant: Di Fara Pizza

A little over a week ago, I at last visited Di Fara Pizza, hidden away in an off-the-beaten-track neighborhood in Brooklyn. Di Fara is a place you often hear about if you spend any time looking around for "best of" sorts of food experiences in New York. While high-class restaurants come into and go out of fashion all the time, and people debate the merits of various wood or coal oven New York pizza icons like Grimaldi's or Totonno's whose popularity is continuously maintained by a platoon of people in the kitchen cranking out pizzas for hundreds of groups of customers every day, Domenico DeMarco keeps turning out one pizza at a time from his tiny kitchen at Di Fara Pizza, and whether you agree or not that it's one of the best pizzas you've ever had, if you try it you at least have to acknowledge that there isn't another pizza experience like it. I was finally persuaded that I needed to make the trek out to Avenue J when I heard someone ask the sweet, gentle, quiet, and opinionated Becky Wasserman, who lives in Burgundy, France, where she made it a point to eat when she had a couple of days in New York, and she answered that of course she loved to go to Daniel Boulud's restaurants with every visit to the city, but also had to get to Di Fara for a pizza. To say that I was surprised to hear that from a quiet old English lady known as an expert on some of the best wines in France would be an understatement.

Dom's workspace, where he makes one pizza at a time.

For over forty years, Dom has been making pizzas his way. This is the only place I've ever been where pizza is truly "artisanal" -- it is made by an artisan, slowly, one pie at a time, and at Di Fara the pizza is never made by anyone else. Until it is delivered to the customer, no one handles a pizza at Di Fara other than Dom. He takes five to ten minutes to make a pizza, and between pizzas he spends a few minutes shuffling the one or two pizzas he has in the oven at any given moment, or finishing (detail on what this means follows below) and cutting a pizza that has just come out, which means that he produces something like 8 pizzas in an hour. Between a third and half of those get sold by the slice, so if you want a whole pizza unto yourself, and you're fourth in a line of people waiting on whole pizzas, you'll wait about 45 minutes to an hour once you place your order.

The start of a pizza.

When I visited, Dom had one assistant working with him. The assistant never touched a pizza in any way, whether as it was being made or after it came out of the oven for a customer. He had two missions: first, he kept a list of names and pizza orders in a stenographer's notebook. Dom makes one pizza at a time, and he always concentrates exclusively on the one or two pizzas in the oven and the next one he is making; he has no awareness of how many or what kinds of pizzas are coming up next on the assistant's list. When he gets a pizza into the oven, he simply asks the assistant what to make next, and then begins working on it. The second job the assistant has is to keep Dom supplied with things from a small storage area behind the little pizza assembly workspace. He'll carry out buckets of sauce, or portions of dough, or various toppings, and put them on the counter where Dom works. But the assistant never has a hand in making a pizza. Conversely, Dom has no interaction with the line of waiting customers or the money, other than to indicate that a pizza is ready by looking up and saying, "OK," or, "There you go," and immediately turning his back to move on to the next pizza.

I wanted to get some pictures of Dom making pizzas, but it's hard to do so unobtrusively since you're only about 10 feet away from Dom. I asked a friend, "Do you think they care if you take their picture?" and he said, "I don't think he cares about anything except making a pizza." Along with not being concerned about having his picture taken, at Di Fara they also don't seem to be too worried about collecting your money. We didn't pay when we ordered; we didn't pay when we got the pizza; no one asked about money when we carried the empty pan back up to the counter. At last we got the assistant's attention and told him what we ordered and that we needed to pay for it. Having to stop to handle the commercial part of the transaction almost seemed to be the only thing they considered a distraction from their work. I don't think they care about anything except making a pizza.

Our raw pizza on the counter ready for baking
as Dom works in the oven.

Watching Dom methodically construct a pie before it goes into the oven can be very relaxing. There is something about watching him slowly stretch out his dough and spread out his base of sauce, cut solid little thin squares of cheese onto it using the flat slicing side of a box grater, and then drizzle it with olive oil, all without any concern for the crowd of people all watching and waiting for him just a few feet away, that makes you wonder why you ever let yourself feel the pressure of all of the chores you haven't gotten to. He slides raw pizzas from his long wooden pizza peel onto the floor of the oven, but once they are in he simply uses his hands to move them around. You are struck dumb the first time you see him reach into the oven and remove a hot pizza by dragging it to the front of the oven by hooking his fingertips over the edge of the crust, and then lift it out by sliding it onto his bare hands and carrying it over in no hurry to a pizza pan waiting on the counter a few feet away.

Applying the final touch of olive oil.

While watching him prepare and bake a pizza is soothing, watching what he does with a pizza after it comes out of the oven is inspiring. Usually the customer that ordered a pizza can tell when his pizza is the one being worked on, and when it is finished baking, the customer is standing at the counter where Dom places the hot pizza on a pan right in front of him. But the pizza isn't quite done: there are still at least three steps left in its preparation before it is ready to be cut and eaten. First, Dom grates more cheese onto the top of it, probably parmesan but the ceremony seems so much more important than the ingredient that I neglected to pay attention -- it might have been mozzarella or even cheddar. Then he drizzles it with more of the nice fruity olive oil from his brass oil can. Finally he'll add some herbs, by cutting or tearing off leaves from a bunch of basil, or holding a big bouquet of oregano over the pizza as he snips away at it like he's giving it a haircut with a pair of scissors. At last he takes his small pizza cutting wheel and makes four slices across the pie to cut it into eight pieces, and only then does he look up at the customer for only a second or two, and with just a hint of a smile, which seemed to me not to be as much an interaction with the customer as simply an indication that he was pleased with his creation, he turns the pizza over to its new owner and then heads back to his counter to start stretching out his next ball of dough.

Our finished pizza, plain cheese on the right half,
with pepperoni on the left.

When you get the pizza, both its appearance and its flavor confirm what you already knew from watching it being made: there are a lot of carefully crafted layers of taste and texture. Many of the ingredients on the pizza have been applied more than once, so that you get two different effects from everything on the pie: cheese forms the base but is also used as soon as it comes out of the oven; likewise olive oil went onto the pizza both before and after baking; half of our pizza had pepperoni, and some of it was nestled below the cheese while a lot had been placed on top of the pizza when it was already in the oven and about halfway done. And perhaps this is what separates Dom's pizza from every other version I've ever had: Dom is cooking pizza, not just making pizza. His process isn't simply assemble and then bake -- he's handling each of the elements of the pizza like a chef handles his raw materials, adding each one to the dish when the time remaining in the process is just enough to bring it to perfection just as it arrives in front of the diner.

Here are a few other blog entries I found on Di Fara Pizza:
This Little Piglet
Off The Broiler

The Slice entry about Di Fara:
Slice on Di Fara

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