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
Did you get a square slice at l&b? That’s really the ticket there.
@Yse – I did get the ssquare…thought it was pretty tasty – although I’m not sure I get the whole tomato sauce over cheese thing. I’d put it in the same general category as Di Fara…tasty, but not quite worth traveling for. (I know others feel VERY differently.)
Ah. That’s pizza physics. Thick square slices take longer to cook. Cheese on top means by the time the crust is done cooking the cheese is incinerated. That’s what makes l&b great. Soft pliable stretchy cheese on a thicker crust. Same principle as Chicago style. Sauce on top prevents overcooked cheese exposed to high heat for too long. Thin crust doesn’t suffer this problem because the dough cooks quicker and the cheese doesn’t burn in that time.
Very impressive insights Yse! Will look for you out there on the pizza trail.
Well said, I’d also like to mention the cheese creates a barrier, preventing the dough from getting soggy with tomato sauce while cooking. It’s a beautiful thing.
Yes. Yes. You’re absolutely right. You shouldn’t wait in line for that pizza. YOU shouldn’t. Please don’t ever again, because you and every other person who is going to there to “prove the pizza gods wrong” are going for the wrong reason. In fact, anyone anywhere who goes to a place just to prove that the hype is not worth it should stay home and troll from their basement instead. So, by all means, stay home. Please stay out of my line. Order your Papa Johns and be sure to get extra breadsticks to sop up all that bitterness.
I love Di Fara’s, but I was just there a couple of weeks ago with my girlfriend and we both felt exactly the same way.
I went to Di Fara earlier in the year and had a similar experience. Because it was winter (I guess?), I was allowed inside. There wasn’t much of a line–probably because it was a weekday afternoon in January–so I foolishly thought that the normal rules probably didn’t apply. Oops. It only took about 5 minutes to order, but I waited over an hour for the pizza. It was already well into the afternoon by the time I got there and I had biked from Midtown, so I was very hungry, and of course the smell of pizza did little to alleviate that. But of course, it was the most amazing slice of pizza I had ever eaten. Well, the most amazing slice I had eaten that day, anyway. It was better than your typical New York slice shop, sure, but maybe 30% better. It didn’t hold a candle to Motorino or Pauly Gee’s, by any stretch. The crust was more than slightly charred–to the point of being difficult to bite into–and while the rest of it was exactly what it was supposed to be, it wasn’t by any means a transcendent experience.
I do tend to agree with the sentiment that nothing is worth that kind of a wait, and there are plenty of well-known New York establishments that will never see another dime of my money because of that. Frankly, if you can’t manage to serve your customers well, you need to start taking reservations. The hype is all fine and dandy, but it’s not worth being insulted. I know that most of these restaurants are probably doing fine, but for my part, if I hear that someone wants to go to Ippudo or The Spotted Pig, I make it clear that I won’t be joining them and suggest that they take their business elsewhere.
Sorry, but you’re wrong. Roberta’s is the most overrated pizza in Brooklyn by a mile. Overpriced. Not special. Poor service.
You clearly haven’t done much research if you thought that coming 2 hours after DiFara opened would be the way to have the shortest wait. Go 15-20 minutes before they open. You’ll be one of the first people to get your pizza and they usually open a little early, so you’ll have waited less than half an hour. The best part? Your pizza will be better. Anyone who knows pizza well knows that a busy pizzeria doesn’t have time to let their oven cool down and recirculate. That means going at a slow time. Since DiFara doesn’t have a slow time, it means going right when they open. You failed on both accounts. Try again and taste the difference. I’ve gone to a lot of pizza places. I love Roberta’s. They do fun things. A plain pie at Roberta’s is not as good as DiFara’s. If you want fancy, go somewhere else. If you want simple, DiFara’s is still the king (as long as you go early).
Also, who goes to a place for the first time and orders one with sausage? C’mon give me a break.
You seem like a nice kid. Couple a things:
Di Fara is great pizza and, as Yse mentioned, there’s an art to it that involves patience. And yes, there’s no avoiding a wait but you shouldn’t be waiting two hours. Go for lunch with friends during the week, get there at 11:30, order a square pie and you should be eating by 12:30.
Here’s a tip on a Manhattan pizzeria that’s top notch. Salvo’s on 78th & York. Been open for a year and a half or so. They know what they’re doing. Both the plain and the Sicilian are excellent. No wait.
Nah. It’s worth it. Not all the time, and maybe not as much since you and every other blogger on the planet elevated the waits from 40 to 90+ minutes. But, it’s still a fantastic pizza. And yes, the whole pie is ALWAYS the way to go.
There is only one word for someone who would wait two hours for a slice of pizza, no matter how good. And, I don’t think it’s Italian. “SCHMUCK!” No offense. You want good pizza? There are few pizzerias in New York that come close to any pizzeria in Italy. I’ve been traveling there for more than 30 years. The world’s best pizzerias belong to the association “Vera Pizza Napoletana.” Perhaps there are some member pizzerias in the New York area. To make the best pizza, you need a certain type of flour, water, cheese, tomato sauce and herbs. Brendan is correct in that many places today are using more generally available prime ingredients that perhaps they could not access years ago, but still, that doesn’t account another factor – the wood-burning oven. I promise you, buy a ticket to Italy and enjoy not only the world’s best pizza, but the best food in general.
I usually love Brooklyn Based but this post, including the title, made me feel disappointed and angry. It was more like a takedown of a talented man, one who has plied his craft for about 50 years. (And a man much more talented than this snotty-sounding writer.) If this had been a fair article and/or review, the tone and word choices would have been different. P.S. I got the pizza made by his son, once, because Dom was too tired at the end of the night and there were still people waiting. It was fine but it wasn’t Di Fara pizza. Maybe you got the pizza made by his son, the younger man you referenced.
I used to live around the corner on east 16th one block away..this was for 11 years before leaving for ditmas park eight years ago. Back then, before bloggers ruled the net, I used to go and never waited more than 20-30 minutes. As long as it was before 5pmish. The Sicilian was the best I ever had and I’d grown up in Coney island not far from Spumoni gardens. Di fara was well worth it then as I think the slices/Sicilian was $3 each. Once it got to $4 ..that was it. I don’t care if there’s gold on it..I ain’t paying $5 a slice when I can go to Totonnos and eat even better pizza for less money. I’m shocked to here he finally allowed his son to make the pizza on his break..it’s a family operation by the way…the lady you mention is his daughter Maggie. I forget the son’s name but he generally makes the fantastic heroes in the back. Living there, I used to go at least twice a week. For the Sicilians one day and a hero the next. I did try going with a friend last summer cause he’s only been there a few times but the wait..at least 90 minutes..I wasn’t about to do. Bottom line..Di fara is a master pizza maker though I always thought his Sicilian blew away his slices..and Spumoni gardens. But, it’s not worth $5 a slice. Robertas is decent but far from the best. In the city I’m partial to Arturo’s in the village. I still badly need to check out Motorino and Pauly Gee. Totonnos..I just love that they’re still operating some 80 plus years after opening. Unfortunately, Jerry…the second pizza maker there who also moved fairly slow but not di fara pace…passed away sometime around 15 years ago. He was either the son or nephew of the original guy who I was too young to have tasted. But Jerry was a total master and made beautiful pies that once in the oven, cooked in no time. Nowadays it’s the son in law making the pizza. It’s been a few years since I’ve been there but while he makes a good pie it’s definitely lost a touch of something Compared to when old man Jerry was bangin them out. Maybe it’s that I grew up down there and I hated guidos growing up. So while I did spend some time at Spumoni gardens, the guidos were just too much back then. I also can’t say the Sicilian or pizza there knocked me out. The Sicilian is decent but so far from the best. I’d love to agree with Yse cause she’s a cutie but I gotta give it to Totonnos down there. I think Di fara sadly got too big for his own head. $5 is just outrageous for that wait and back in the day..he never used to put nearly as much basil leaves all over..not a fan…the fame really went to their heads. Most of the old school people I know who were loyal to Dom won’t go there anymore due to the price and wait. I used to go and we’d talk..he was very friendly back then…same with Maggie. It’s sad what fame does to alot of people. I can’t necessarily fault them for charging so much..it’s all the hype that afforded him the ability to cash in. But I certainly can’t justify paying that much and waiting that long. Back then it was worth it cause you’re right…there weren’t many pizza joints using the ingredients he uses so it was worth paying $1 more. But nowadays, there’s a good amount of places where they make great pizzas and I’m looking forward to trying out the other spots mentioned.
I woild not buy a slice of pizza from this place if you paid me. once whole waiting in line to try this so called famous pizza I saw the owner Dominic blow his nose and returned making the pizza. He didnt even wash his hands, even though he saw that I noticed. Additionally, the place is fitlhy dirty with spider webs stuck to the walls. Many times the Dept. of health has shut down this place due to poor sanitary conditions.
Hey. Nicely written story. Just wanted to shed some light on why the waiting outside system is in place this summer (it is a new system, just started two months ago). If everyone was able to go inside and wait for their order, not everyone would get a seat when their food was ready to eat. Instead of having people sit in seats waiting, people get the chance to sit and eat. Just like when you go to a restaurant, they call you when your table is ready, DiFara calls when your order is almost ready and that coincides with being able to go inside and find a seat to sit in to eat. Come winter, I am sure the crowd will be waiting inside. Just hope that if there are people sitting and waiting, and there is that couple who has their food but no place to sit, someone gets up to let them eat.
I’ve been going to DiFara for around 20 years, before there were huge waits — though there were already waits on weekends — and I still think that its the best pizza in New York, and one of the best in the world. I don’t go nearly as often as I used to, because its difficult to deal with all of the schtick necessary to get a slice, and it is perhaps a bit less consistent than it used to be because the consumers have become less discerning than they used to be, but I still consider it a privilege to eat it. Dom has a definite point of view, and while it is true that anybody can copy a Picasso, a copy is still not quite the same as the original, and I think we are all lucky that he still shows up as often as he does.
Incidentally, I think L&B is awful, and don’t get that at all. I like the Neapolitan places like Roberta/PaulieGee very much, but I prefer the places that put out a uniquely New York product better. Lucali and Totonno are my other favorites in Brooklyn, and I think that DeLorenzo’s in Trenton (the Robbinsville location is better), and Santillo’s in Elizabeth are also unique expressions of pizza as an American foodway that people who have a special interest in pizza and its history must try.
As a follow-up, I honestly don’t get the bitching and moaning about the price and the wait. Do I wish the pizza was free and that I could snap my fingers to get a slice? Of course, but I live in the real world. Dom is one person and can only make pizza so fast. (And having tasted his son’s attempt at pizza, I’ll wait for the master.) If you don’t like the price/wait, don’t go. You’ll make the line shorter for me.
Enjoyed this. You cover every angle and make som excellent points about the ingredients not being so special anymore and the lack of customer service, etc. I’ve been to DiFara only once, about 10 years ago (pre-hype). It’s ridiculous if they treat customers as you describe…locking them out of the shop??? I wonder if that has anything to do with the health violations from a few years ago — fewer eyes on them, the better.