The first thing you notice at Di Fara Pizza on Avenue J in Midwood, Brooklyn is how shabby it looks. The trash can’s mouth is overflowing — and on top of it, empty cans and bottles accumulate. If there is an empty table, it needs to be wiped off.
You’ll also notice that the place is in a state of barely contained chaos. There are dozens of people waiting — but with no clear line. The list of orders is in a spiral notebook and on tops of pizza boxes — stacked at least a dozen high — and subject to frequent rearranging. You have questions. Q1: Has everyone already placed their orders? (Probably not.) Q2: Should you raise your hand or call out? (Definitely not.) Q3: But what if they are waiting for whole pies and you just want a slice or two? (Keep an eye on the slice pie. Politely ask, if you notice extras.)
At Di Fara you will wait, and probably wait for a while. Sometimes the wait is an hour or more — just for a slice — in this small and crowded room where the air conditioning barely works.
My friend George calls Di Fara “crack pizza.” Like addicts waiting for their dealer, customers at Di Fara wait for pizza made by owner Dom DeMarco, in a test of endurance. If you look into their eyes you can practically see their thoughts — begging him to work faster, willing that next pizza to be theirs. Stomachs grumble. Elbows are locked in defensive positions. The addict doesn’t know when the dealer will arrive, but he does know that applying pressure pays no dividends. Customers know that you don’t rush Dom — he would never consider moving faster because the pizza would suffer.
The wait isn’t for everyone. I’ve seen bemused first timers retreat to their cars mumbling and pizzaless, after five minutes. Another friend of mine loves the pizza but cannot endure the wait inside. He snags a beer from the deli across the street and sips it in the car, visiting me inside occasionally to check on our progress. The neighbors, who sustained this business for its first 30 years, don’t come anymore. They can’t fathom waiting so long. Some have asked if there could be a “locals’ day,” where they could reclaim Di Fara and not have to wait behind the usual pizza excursionists from beyond the neighborhood.
I’ve learned not to be bothered by the wait. In fact, I’ve grown to relish it. Dom, who is 75 as of this writing, essentially works alone, only ceding the tasks of food prep, taking orders, and making sense of the “line” to one of his sons or daughters. But when it comes to making the pies, Dom delegates nothing. To me, watching him is like watching a virtuoso soloist.
It starts with stretching out a new dough on the peel. He ladles on the sauce and then uses a paring knife to cut mozzarella into small pieces. They land in the center of the dough and he distributes them around. It’s not done yet, but he turns to open the oven and uses his bare hands to bring a finished pie to the counter, without hurry, lowering it into a box. He turns to grab the oil tin, opens the oven, pours some olive oil atop a nearly done square pie, and closes the oven. He returns to the finished pizza in the box and — steam still rising — drizzles on some final oil and adds a couple fistfuls of grated cheese. With scissors he clips basil from a thick rubber-banded bunch — straight onto the pie. He closes the box, and with a tap of finality, briefly acknowledges the customer with a nod. The delighted and relieved customer pays and goes. The man on stage goes back to preparing the pizza on the peel, restretching the dough with his back to the crowd. The rest of the people — who have watched his every move since first entering — each step forward a couple of inches to fill the new space. The wait continues.
DI FARA ESSENTIALS
Who: Owner Domenico DeMarco (with five of his seven kids alternating as his backup team).
What’s there: Two kinds of pizza: round & square, available as a whole pie or by the slice. All pizza made with liberal amounts of a chunky San Marzano tomato sauce, at least two types of cheese (grana padano, low moisture (whole milk) mozzarella, and fresh cow's milk or buffalo mozzarella (for the square pies only)), extra virgin olive oil, and fresh snipped basil. Standard toppings (pepperoni, sausage, mushroom, onions, garlic, black olives, meatballs, anchovies, and peppers) and gourmet toppings (artichokes, porcini mushrooms, green olives, baby eggplant, broccoli rabe, wild onions, sun-dried roasted peppers, and sun-dried cherry tomatoes) available. White pizza and calzones also offered. BYO.
Why go: Go for the pizza and for the slow food drama. His kids plan to continue the business after he retires — and the pizza will remain great — but it may take them a while to achieve their father’s standards of perfection. “If some pies come out some way I no like, I just throw them in the garbage,” says Dom.
How: DeMarco takes New York style pizza and amps it up with insane amounts of premium ingredients. Each year he burns out a couple of thermostats because he keeps the oven cranked up to 800-900 degrees — well above the norm for a gas-burning pizza oven. Dom moves slowly — not only because he’s 75 — but because to him each pizza is a project that merits extremely careful attention. When asked what makes his pizza special, the first words out of his mouth are, “My hands.”
Quote: “Never come here when you have an appointment or a plane to catch.” -- Dom’s daughter, Margaret DeMarco Mieles
411: 1424 Avenue J (at East 15th Street) in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. Tel. 718-258-1367. Q train to Avenue J. Map Di Fara. Hours: Wed - Sat: lunch 12 - 4:00 pm, dinner 7 - 9 pm; Sun: lunch 1 - 4 pm, dinner 7 - 8 pm; closed Monday and Tuesday. Check Di Fara’s Facebook page for updated and last minute changes.