In the very first edition of Revisiting the Classics, we investigated whether the epic, tourist-clogged line at DUMBO’s world-famous Grimaldi’s Pizzeria could possibly live up to all the hype (and the wait). But time spent in line at Grimaldi’s is small potatoes compared to the epic patience needed to sample a slice at what is certainly New York’s most overhyped pizzeria: Midwood’s Di Fara Pizza.
Every Wednesday through Sunday, serious pizza-seekers from around the city (and often, the world), descend from the elevated Q-train tracks at Avenue J and into a neighborhood most of them have probably never visited before. They venture up to the street-side window at this humble-looking corner pizza shop, plop down $5 a slice(!) then wait…and wait…and wait, as a septuagenarian Italian immigrant (and longtime Brooklynite) punches out his dough, grates on slivers of cheese, and layers the tomato sauce and olive oil, ever so slowly and ever so carefully. Waits of up to two hours are not uncommon. The reason? Everywhere from The New York Times to the Village Voice to Zagat and Anthony Bourdain have praised Domenico DeMarco’s 51-year-old pizza shop as the best of the best of the best.
Having lived in NYC since birth and Brooklyn for the past decade, I’d thus far managed to avoid committing a full day to this unwieldy pizza adventure, but no list of the borough’s classic eateries could be complete without a trek to Di Fara.
There are plenty of guides on how to do Di Fara right, but all of them agree on one thing: There’s really no way to avoid the wait. Hoping to discover an off-hour, a friend and I recently tried around 2pm on a weekday afternoon, and were pleasantly surprised to find only a handful of people queueing at the window when we arrived. Even better, when we put in our order–two slices and a “square” (the lauded Sicilian, at $6 a serving)–the woman at the window informed us that a Sicilian pie had just come out of the oven and she could give us the square right now. High on our good luck, we devoured the square–nice, golden-brown puffy edges, tangy sauce, good fresh basil, if nothing revelatory. But the real wait, for the traditional slices, was still to come. It’s not so much about lining up to place your order at Di Fara, but once you do, waiting for DeMarco to turn out your slice or pie, which some say is worth ordering even for just one person, as they consistently come out quicker than single slices. This legendary pizzaiola is famous for working at his own speed, and there’s no telling just how long that will be. The doors are locked, and you’re only granted access inside when your pizza is ready, so the hordes who have already ordered are left standing on the street corner staring hopefully at the window and listening desperately for their names, wordlessly pleading in the general direction of the pizza oven like puppies in a pet store window.
This unnecessarily painful process is the main reason to hate on Di Fara. While many New Yorkers would say that anything you have to wait on line for is overhyped, there are some popular places where there’s actually a communal reverie to the wait–the weekend brunch line at Tom’s comes to mind, where the owners come out to offer orange slices, cookies and coffee. At Di Fara you’re left to your own devices, wondering where exactly your name has fallen on the order-taker’s yellow legal pad from hell. Most who say the wait is worth it cite DeMarco’s expert approach and the fact that one master pizza maker can only turn out so many pies in any given day. “I believe only one guy should make the pizza,” DeMarco told the Times in 2009. While that may have been true in Di Fara’s heyday, it no longer is. When the legend popped out for an hour-long break on our visit, a younger pizza-maker stepped in, working at the same maddeningly slow pace. This wait might make sense if Di Fara used some intricate old-world method that the other pizzerias around New York just can’t compete with, but as far but as I can tell, this pizza process is not so wildly different from the one used pretty much everywhere else. A two-hour wait might not be so obscene if 200 people showed up before you, but on this afternoon there were maybe 12 people total served before us; and the wait for those measly two slices still took an hour and a half. I have to wonder if the Di Fara team prioritizes keeping their now-legendary wait time intact over keeping customers happy.
During this time, one Brooklynite (not a customer) wandered toward us with an angry look in his eye. “How long have you been waiting?” he demanded to know. His face lit up with disbelief when we said nearly ninety minutes. “Why would you do that?” he spewed. “I work down the block and I see this every day. It’s not even that good! Have you been to L&B?” he asked, referring to the equally venerable L&B Spumoni Gardens in Gravesend. “It’s much better and there’s no wait.”
If there’s nothing more touristy than waiting on a two-hour line for pizza, there’s nothing more New York than going up to strangers and berating them for said waiting. So if nothing else, I’m glad I got to make this guy’s day by giving him the chance to tell us how dumb we were. (I’m pretty sure this dude saunters by Di Fara for that very purpose at least once a day.) By the time we were finally called inside for our slices, we were barely even excited for pizza anymore. Instead, we were hot, tired, hungry, and berating our native New York selves for being foolish enough to spend a day this way.
So…after all that, is it possible for any slice to live up to this hype?
No. It is not. In fact, you only have to look at the many (mostly outdated) press clippings lining Di Fara’s interiors to see that the pizza world has largely passed this place by. The things DeMarco was lauded for 10 and 20 years ago are now commonplace. Most of the praise is heaped on his use of high-quality ingredients–imported extra-virgin olive oil, mozzarella di bufala, San Marzano tomatoes–things that maybe were unheard of at a neighborhood pizza joint years ago, but now can be found in nearly any Brooklyn kitchen, and plenty of other pizza places, if not at your standard slice spot. For the record, the crispy, slightly charred crust is excellent, although the front doesn’t hold up to the weight of even this thin-on-the-cheese pie. The tangy sauce is quite tasty, the sparingly used cheese is indeed high-quality and the fresh-cut basil adds some flavor…but none of that really counts as unique these days. Toppings-wise, there are an enticing array of fresh options; I found a sausage slice overly salty.
Overall, I’d rate Di Fara’s slices as very good for standard New York pizza, but I don’t think they even compare to the borough’s best spots–old and new outfits like Juliana’s, Roberta’s, Totonno’s and Emily are all a cut well above. Perhaps this storyline is unfair to Old Man DeMarco: neighborhood pizza shop elevates the quality of its pie; locals eat it up; food critics discover it; tourists descend; bloggers obsess; praise reaches unrealistic levels; next-generation bloggers wonder where this guy gets off making pizza that is simply good and not transcendent. The truth is, there is probably no pizza that can justify a two-hour wait or a $5 price tag. Di Fara’s slice is solid–I just wish they’d make the slightest effort to turn it out a bit quicker. By no measure is it worth the trip out to Midwood and an entire afternoon of waiting outside on the street. At least I’ve fulfilled my own know-it-all New Yorker obligation to tell you what not to do with your time.
Oh, and since two slices and a square didn’t really fill the two of us up completely, we hopped the F train over to Spumoni Gardens afterwards to see if their pizza delivered on our instructive interloper’s own hype. It was fine.
1424 Avenue J (at East 15th Street); 718-258-1367; difara.com
Photos: Brendan Spiegel