It was a hot, muggy Tuesday in June, and I had just finished up a pie at Grimaldi's under the bridge (before the split into Juliana's). This was the third pie today, and I had just one left this afternoon to complete my list: a nondescript hole-in-the-wall off of Avenue J in South Brooklyn.
The stakes were high, because the crust that Patsy Grimaldi had graced my presence with was nigh perfect, and it would take a legendary pie to top my current lunch. In hindsight, legendary was the correct term.
I hopped on the Q and off we went.
Location, Location, Location
Di Fara Pizza is located on Avenue J in Midwood, Brooklyn. It doesn't matter how you slice it: Di Fara's Pizza is far. Very, very far. I have braved the journey from all corners of New York City, and my average trip time has never ducked under an hour each way. The only successful attempt I've had at shortening the travel time was via renting an AirBnB literally three blocks away from the pizzeria -- intentionally.
The Q train is notorious for delays, service advisories, and outright closures. If you plan on enjoying a slice of Mr. DeMarco's finest, you best reserve an afternoon for travel time, and the rest of the evening to actually receive your pizza.
Why must you block out your entire weekend just for lunch? Because a slice of Di Fara pizza isn't complete without waiting in line. A very, very long line. I have lost relationships, filed my taxes, and missed flights waiting in this line, yet it was worth it every time. OK, almost every time.
Once you have braved the journey and the queue, however, accession into pizza nirvana doesn't come without a price. (Wait, you're saying a two hour subway ride and a three hour wait doesn't count as payment?)
Nope, not at Di Fara's. Payment is happily accepted in cash, starting at $5 for a slice, and $30 for a pie. Perhaps VISA isn't everywhere you want to be after all...
And now, the moment you've been waiting for: Your slice has arrived! Achievement unlocked. Now to sit down and eat...
...oh, the only two small tables are both taken. Brilliant.
So far, this sounds like an epicurean nightmare. Admittedly, that's a bit how I felt my first time through the Di Fara Experience®. But then I took a bite of the pizza, and suddenly what the prophecy hath fortold became clear. I shall share that experience with you now.
But first, a bit of history.
Cooking Since 1959
The best part about Di Fara's is how much history there isn't. The pizzeria was opened by Dom DeMarco, who immigrated from Caserta, Italy, in 1959. "Di Fara" is a portmanteau of DeMarco and his long-lost partner, Farina.
Fast forward fifty-seven years, and not much has changed. The operation is run by two or three of Dom's children, most notably one of his daughters who handles the unruly customers. And in the back, at the counter, is the man, the legend: Mr. DeMarco, making pies.
If you were hunched over a counter making pizza for the last half-century, the concept of haste would likely occupy zero space in your process. Dom takes turnaround times to a whole new level: the man is in no rush, and you best not be either.
Di Fara Pizza epitomizes a true passion for food. I once half-jokingly told Dom how distraught I would be if he retired, and his response calmed my nerves immediately: I'm nevah going to retiah.
Now, it's understandably easy to fall into the trap of romanticism: one man making the same, delicious pizza for over fifty years. What's not to love? Well, other than the lines, the location, the extremely limited hours, and the price, that is.
But despite the unwavering respect I have for this establishment, a handicap is not required: this pizza stands on its own as, without a doubt, the best pizza I have ever tasted.
Yep, I said it. Di Fara Pizza is the gold standard by which I judge all other pizza, and until I find its successor, I will forever live in imminent fear of Dom's retirement.
The moment you've been waiting (likely way too long) for.
Di Fara's sauce is near perfection. It's an exquisite blend of sweet and tangy, using imported San Marzano tomatoes cooked in-house. It's never dry, has perfect coverage across the entire pie, and balances the cheese in exactly the right proportions. The sauce is bursting with flavor, and I would gladly eat a slice of tomato sauce bread if that were all that were left.
But, despite how good the sauce may be, it will always be second fiddle to Dom's cheese blend. The cheese used, without a doubt, is the difference between this pie and all inferior imitations.
Pies here have full, consistent cheese coverage, in just the correct proportion -- enough to be extremely satisfying, but not enough to overwhelm the crust or sauce. What puts the cheese situation over the top is not the mozzarella, but rather the parmesan. A healthy amount of freshly grated, high-quality parmesan on a pie before baking is what all other pizzas are missing.
Now, these pizzas are salty. This isn't that flavorless, fior de latte glob that sits half-cooked on your Neapolitan. This is a salty, tangy, oily cheese experience, and your mouth will thank you later.
Speaking of oil...
Dom ensures that his crust contains plenty of moisture and oil content to never go dry or crackery, and it makes the difference. The crust is tossed out to a traditional New York-style thickness, has the perfect amount of chew, and has absolutely none of that partched breadiness you find in hastily-made doughs. The edges are delightful, and middle still retains enough stability and thickness to not completely lose its toppings.
However, the crust is one culinary department where Di Fara's can, on occasion, fall short. It is not unheard of to end up with a somewhat non-uniformly baked crust, and potentially, gasp, burnt crust. This is one of the challenges that Di Fara's faces by virtue of being such a small shop with a massive, demanding clientele; it is very hard for one man to manage making new pies and keep a consistent baking experience.
This is all to say, when a Di Fara's pie is good, it is second to none. But if Dom gets distracted by something, your hard-earned pizza is subject to some severely charred edges. The solution? Pizza redundancy. Order two.
What Di Fara's lacks in consistency, however, it makes up for with a few added flourishes. Dom has a very specific procedure for the post-baking process which is not to be missed. When a pizza is removed, he takes a handful of fresh basil, a pair of kitchen scissors, and starts cutting. Because this happens after the pizza is cooked, you don't end up with that burnt, crispy, disappointing vestige of basil that many pizzerias offer.
Instead, for his last trick, Dom reveals -- and I kid you not -- the coveted olive oil watering can, and proceeds to douse the basil in sweet, golden liquid. Allow me to repeat: Di Fara's adds practically a quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil on top of your pizza, after it's done cooking. As the oil heats up on the piping hot pie, this has the added effect of cooking the basil just enough to release its aroma, but not nearly enough to burn it. Clever guy...
In other news, New York-style pies are not the only type of pizza Di Fara's offers. In fact, they are arguably just as famous for another type of pie, which is equally as delicious: the Sicilian. These thick, greasy, slices are double baked in cast iron pans, and have double the sauce and double the cheese for double the fun.
They are absolutely worth trying, and some people even prefer the Sicilian over the traditional pie. Whichever your preference, options abound at Di Fara's, because their incessant customer demand has created a situation unheard of in pizza operations management:
Di Fara's serves slices, and they are always fresh.
Yep, you don't have to commit to a whole pie while still avoiding the soul-crushing flavor imparted by the low hum of a heat lamp. There are so many customers, that Di Fara's makes "slice pies" -- whole pies that they split up into slices and sell for $5 a pop. Genius indeed.
Speaking of $5 slices, rumor has it that Di Fara's was the first pizzeria in NYC to charge five Washingtons for some pizza. When the price increased, it incited chaos in the pizza community (yes, there's a pizza community), and may have cost them a Yelp star.
Regardless of who started it, Dom claims that his ingredients -- all of which are imported from Italy -- have become very expensive, and necessitated the price increase. And you know what? If that's what it takes to make pizza taste this good, then my copy of Lincoln is safe in his hands.
Di Fara's is a different beast. It's far, yes. It's expensive, sure. And it takes for-frickin'-ever, absolutely. But guess who else has given their endorsement in favor of Dom's finest? NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. Yes, the mayor of New York City took a position on arguably the most divisive issue on the Eastern Seaboard. It's practically the most politically-risky move a New York mayor could take.
But he did anyway. Because Di Fara's is that ridiculously good.