Last week my sister and I picked a day and decided to spend the afternoon together. Though we both live in the same city and see each other regularly for family stuff, it’s rare that we get in some quality time. Our chosen activity for the day was an eating adventure in south Brooklyn to sample some very New York and very delicious ‘good eats.’ The main destination was Di Fara’s, reputably the best pizza parlor in NYC, making it potentially the best pizzeria in the country, or even the world. Acclaim for Di Fara’s is widespread, being lauded everywhere from foodie websites (Chowhound in particular) to the New York Times. From those that have been lucky enough to try a slice there are stories equating the experience to that of being touched by a saint: sublime, divine, and blissful are frequent adjectives. There are holy cities such as Kyoto, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Rome, to name just a few; it seems like Di Fara’s in Midwood Brooklyn should be added to the list.
Th pizza certainly lives up to expectations. It is truly beyond any other pizza I have ever had. And not that it’s gourmet pizza or anything like that. It’s still classic Neapolitan thin-crust NY style pizza as you know and want it. It’s just that the man that makes it is gifted at what he does. Domenico De Marco is the proprietor and sole pizza maker at Di Fara. He’s had the shop since about ’64 and allows only himself the responsibility of turning out the pies. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it: six days a week, ten hours a day for over 40 years and he’s the only one making the pizza. He knows what he was put on Earth to do and it’s his job to fulfill that mission and bring the message to the people.
So, the pizza. What makes it so good? First and foremost, the man know his ingredients and how to prepare them. Di Fara’s offers a cheese-y slice and Dom has his secret combination of quality cheeses, each with unique and complimentary flavors and textures; three to four different varieties go on to one pie. The dough has a strong earthy character, the kind you want from good bread that connects you to that element of nature. The sauce is generally light with a nice mild tang and lumpy chunks of tomato scattered throughout. Each pie is finished with a drizzle of olive oil, fresh basil snipped with scissors right from the bunch, and grated Parmigiano-reggiano. The pie is assembled and expertly prepared by Dom, as he reaches into the hot oven and with perfect timing innately knows when to rotate it around and eventually take out the new born masterpiece. Each bite is an appreciation of these ingredients and of the craftsmanship with which they are assembled. As the teeth bite down through the contrasting textures of dough-sauce-cheese, the flavors of each unfold, and I find myself sitting on a pizza cloud floating up to pizza heaven. Hey, is that…
But, for me, what makes the pizza truly outstanding and worthy of genius status is its inconsistencies and ‘imperfections.’ A Di Fara’s pie is not uniform all around. It’s just the opposite. The crust is slightly burnt and darker on one side but cooked at a more moderate temperature on another; the cheese is more concentrated in some places and more spread out in others; on one side, the cheese would be cooked slightly longer than the other; the dough is thinner here and more dense there; large chunks of tomatoes poking through in some spots are absent everywhere else; the basil is scattered about. This results in contrasts in texture: some parts are gentle, soft, and moist and others are chewy, tough, and dry; flavors range from sweet and mild to bitter and fiery.
Each bite of Di Fara’s pizza revealed a new experience. Each bite was a new sensation, a new taste, a new combination of texture and flavor. Each bite was totally unique and varied greatly depending from what side of the pizza one was eating. I never knew such depth and range was possible with pizza. As an example, I can describe a slice from top to bottom, from the tip that was taken from the center of the pie to the crust at the outer edge: the tip, as being from the center, is the softest part of the slice; the dough is generally stretched thinner in this section and made somewhat moist with the oil and concentration of cheese. Here the slice is almost falling apart; the salty sweet white dreaminess of the cheese and fragility of the dough are its dominant characteristics. As I work my way up and get to the middle, the crust starts to have more integrity and reveal more of its chewiness. The balance between crust and cheese begins to even and I can taste more of the specific flavor and richness of the combined cheeses. Closer to the crust, the flavor of the dough comes out, finally competing with that of the cheese. This is also were the chunks of tomato have been hiding, adding even more aspects of change to this progressive experience. The experience finally culminates with the crust, the dry dough that forms the backbone of the pie, the frame for the cheeses, olive oil, basil, and tomatoes, the taste of the earth on top of which all of these other elements sit and act out their parts. And no two bites of crust are the same! There’s the smoky bitter charred parts and then the mellow humble golden parts. It’s these purposeful inconsistencies around the pie and the way the slice changes from top to bottom that really make it brilliant and unlike any other pizza. This man that makes them is truly an artist, presenting possibilities and imparting vision where once there was only a bland yellow hue.
Di Fara’s is located in a predominantly orthodox Jewish community in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. And like the Jewish ethos there, the pizza chooses to reflect the richness and depth of its history and experiences. It’s not uniform or one-dimensional. It is brazen (unashamed) about its willingness to display the variety of its character. Each bite tells a different story.
My eating adventure with my sister carried on to the nearby Ostrovitsky Bakery where we got rainbow cookies and a chocolate danish, and then to the truly fantastic summertime treat (some of the best people watching and an amazing summertime outdoor evening hangout!) in Bensonhurst, L&B Spumoni Gardens, where we each got small cups of rainbow spumoni. In the words of my sister, our day was, “Gastronomical!” Definitely some great quality time indeed.