When people talk about food in religious terms, I often feel like a documentary filmmaker interviewing a member of a cult. Their eyes bug out of their heads, their hands gesticulate wildly: “I saw the face of God in the Pearl Oyster Bar lobster roll.”
Granted, I’ve been guilty of the same thing. I get a little spiritual when it comes to fantastic food. But I draw the line at missionary-style zeal: I don’t proselytize at dinner parties about why such-and-such a burger is the Jesus of hamburgers and why eating any other kind of burger makes you a sinner. I’m more of a Jewish mother than a Baptist minister when it comes to food: I may needle you and urge you to “put some more meat on your bones,” but I won’t baptize you in a bowl of Momofuku ramen.
In the pantheon of proselytizing foodies, none are worse, in my opinion, than the Di Fara-philes. The Katz’s Deli-ites may bully you a bit, but soon they leave you alone. The Ssam Bar cronies shoot you menacing looks as you walk past, but you can ignore them. Not so Di Fara-philes. They’re the Jim Bakers of the food world: verbally slapping you around until you relent and admit that Di Fara pizza is not only the greatest pizza that’s ever happened, but the greatest contribution mankind has made to the universe next to fire and the wheel.
I have felt the wrath of Di Fara-philes first hand, mostly because I’ve lived in New York for three years and–up until last week–I had never been there. “You’ve never been to Di Fara?!” they’d say as if they’d seen into the core of my soul and found a huge, festering wound. “What kind of food blogger are you?”
Like a 13-year old Jewish atheist forced to have a Bar Mitzvah, I consulted the Rabbi–in this case, Adam Kuban who told me how to get there and what to order (“Just a plain cheese pie”)–invited my friend Patty, who also hadn’t been sanctified in the waters of Di Fara, and boarded the Q train to Ave. J, ready to save our souls.
No star in the sky showed us the way, but instinct led us in the right direction. We found Di Fara, despite its unprepossessing exterior, and upon walking in I expected to hear a pipe organ or a choir: the place was church-like, with the pizza counter as altar and the disciples–throngs of greedy Di Fara-philes–pressed in, to get a look at their god, the man behind the operation, the legend himself: Dom DeMarco, the mind, body and soul of Di Fara.
Here he is, assembling a pizza:
Now up until this point I was skeptical. I know the spectrum from bad New York pizza to good New York pizza stretches wide, but at the good end I’ve had enough quality pies–Una Pizza Napoletana, Franny’s–to feel that good pizza can only be so good. I love those pizzas, but at the end of the day, it’s just dough, sauce and cheese. We needn’t jab our eyes out in effigy: pizza is pizza.
And yet, here is this man–this tiny man, mild-mannered, patient and soft-spoken–methodically stretching out dough. He does it rhythmically, gets it into a wide circle, and then he ladles sauce on. Not too much sauce, just enough to coat the dough but not so much it’ll drown the pie. He gets a ball of fresh mozzarella and slices it slowly, thoughtfully, and scatters it carefully–purposefully–so each bit of circle has a bit of mozzarella. He adds another cheese–is it ricotta?–and then, from a copper can that looks like the oil can from “The Wizard of Oz”–he drizzles oil over the pie. He opens the oven door and removes, with his fingers, a finished pie to a tray and replaces it with the raw one.
To the hot pizza, he drizzles on more oil. Then he goes to a grating machine and grates fresh parmesan. He takes his time. When he has enough Parmesan grated, he takes a handful over to the hot pie and sprinkles it on. Then he takes fresh basil from the windowsill and, with a pair of scissors, snips fresh basil leaves on top. With a pizza cutter he cuts the pie and everyone watching–from the smallest child to the oldest man–salivates and looks up eagerly: “Is this pie for me?” Dom knows whose pie it is. “This your pizza,” he says to two guys at the end of the counter. They get out money and pay and carry it, like the Ark of the Covenant, to their table and study this creation, completely mesmerized.
I’ve never seen anything like this.
In all my years of eating out–and I’ve been eating out since childhood–I’ve never seen a chef so magically absorbed in his work. It’s as if Dom DeMarco came out of the womb with a pizza cutter in his hand, ready to pursue his life’s purpose–a purpose he treats with the same seriousness that I.M. Pei designs a building or Bob Dylan writes a song. He is the real deal, a true artisan, and standing in his presence is indeed a spiritual experience.
When he came to me and asked what I wanted, I ordered a plain cheese pie, and then watched and waited for about thirty minutes before my pie was ready. I didn’t care. Patty got us a table and I forgot she was there waiting. I just watched him. The rituals–the dough, the sauce, the cheese, the oil, the oven, the basil–were as defined as that of any religion. I couldn’t stop watching. And neither could anyone else: that was the amazing thing. In New York City (well, Brooklyn, but close enough)–a city famous for its impatience, its rushing, its speed–people line up and wait hours (really: there’s a sign on the wall that says it could take hours) for a basic pizza pie. And all because of this little man who, like an oracle, channels energy from the gods to produce perfect pizza.
At last, ours was ready and I paid and brought the pizza to Patty who waited patiently. Here it is:
Maybe it doesn’t look like supernatural pizza, maybe you see it the way others see a hotel room Bible. But trust me: the colors, the sounds (blub blub blub), the smells were captivating. And I left it to Patty to have the first piece, which I documented on video:
Notice how Patty pauses before she says, “It’s really great.” That’s because her senses are processing the wonder of a Di Fara pizza. Somehow, all that love and care that goes into each pie makes each bite taste like a symphony, a sonnet, a Pulitzer-prize winning play. It’s a work of art. And after only one slice each we instantly declared that it was the best pizza we’d ever had.
So there you have it: I drank the Kool-Aid. I shaved my head and put on the toga. I am now a convert and I’m ready to convert you. You mean you live in New York and you haven’t been to Di Fara? What kind of heathen are you? I see that wound festering in your soul and it’s time you patched it up and do what the post title tells you: go to Di Fara and get saved.
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