Be Careful What You Read
03.31.2014
Michael Berman in Anywhere, Food for Thought, Multimedia, Perspectives, Pizza, Places

CAUTION: Some writers may present their opinions via a clouded lens.

Some restaurant reviewers have gotten out of hand. With ease of publication at an all time high thanks to the internet, anyone can pose as an expert  – and whenever they choose to, they can easily put their words out there. I suppose it’s up to readers to decide whose writing they like and what to trust. But these days there’s often no accounting for taste, and it may even be that eaters get fooled by writers who bestow undeserving praise or false negatives upon certain restaurants – cases where the opinion professed is simply not a just dessert. Maybe ulterior motives are at play. (Cue "Dragnet" sound clip.)

Certain stories, in particular celebrity-related ones, those that utilize the fame of a featured personality, or those that cover trendy foods du jour (Cronuts: a Cro-Magnon obsession?) can defy logic and go viral whether for their trashiness (or their trash-talking-ness) or because people, myself included, sometimes we don’t want to think too much.

But thinking is worth it! The better food writers are those who are either (a) extremely knowledgeable about food, and thus their words can inform and educate; (b) generous with their discoveries and willing to take the time to report on them; or (c) unique in their voice and angle such that each piece they write becomes more of a story – perhaps even a parable – about life, instead of merely a catalogue of cliche details about certain preparations.

Many writers combine any or all of these traits.

I love the food writing of Calvin Trillin. Though many of his stories are from decades ago, they resonate today just the same as they must have at their time of publication. Especially impressive is how Trillin's stories barely scratch the surface when it comes to describing the foods themselves. Rather, they detail the sometimes-madcap, often-elaborate lengths that he and those in his network of food enthusiasts went to in pursuit of the best rendition of something. The stories are hilarious. And so well written that I have found myself on more than one occasion, googling restaurants in Kansas City, names of people and bars in Pennsylvania, and church-run clambake festivals in New England, to see if they’re still on the scene today, 20-40 years since the stories’ initial publication. (Seek out “The Tummy Trilogy,” for a compilation of Trillin’s food writings.)

Sadly, Trillin is an exception, not a rule. Most food writers focus on the food itself with barely a hint of detail about what might have been a rich experience leading up to or accompanying that food. In one regard these kinds of stories work well enough: they inform readers about new places to go to, different foods to try, or recipes to cook. But then there are the reviewers who get things wrong, or worse, seem as if they have an axe to grind for no good apparent reason.

Best to taste for yourself!

As a regular person who likes to write about food and my food adventures, I can attest to the occasional temptation to write negatively about a restaurant (or a food, or a writer). It’s a simple way to imbue a story with passion, especially when something upsetting goes down. Because really, who isn’t in the mood for a little food justice?!

Case in point. When for the second time in a row the crust of a pizza I ordered from a certain shop near where I live was severely undercooked (despite dark char on the bottom), I wanted to write about it. And, when in the second of those two deliveries, the pizza arrived ruined with all the cheese and toppings off to the side in the box as if the delivery guy had carried it vertically, and the place didn’t even offer me a partial refund – I wanted to write about that. But I didn’t. Actually, I did tweet it, thinking I could influence the customer service I didn't feel I was getting, but then I deleted the tweet. Customers can vote with their wallets. I’m well aware of how difficult and risky the restaurant business is, and I certainly don’t want to play a role in the ruin of some person’s (or people’s) livelihood.

 

Larger, corporate-owned, and braggart restaurants might be an exception – they benefit from enhanced marketing budgets and financial reserves. For instance, when New York Times restaurant reviewer Pete Wells wrote a scathing review (comprised only of questions) of TV celebrity Guy Fieri’s restaurant Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square, it somehow seemed fair. Guy Fieri, whose fame is linked with his on-air celebration of America’s great “Diner’s, Drive-ins, and Dives,” ought to have allowed his name to be attached to this restaurant only if he honestly thought that its food would have passed muster if subjected to his own show’s vetting procedure. 

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But when writers take down mom-and-pop restaurants: to me this is shameful. It came up the other day when I happened upon a Facebook post by Maggie DeMarco, the daughter of Di Fara Pizza owner Dominic DeMarco. She had written a response to “Not A Love Letter: Di Fara Is Home To New York City's Junkiest Pizza Slice,” a cruel and misinformed article by Katie Parla that had appeared on the blog, foodrepublic.com (the blog is owned by restaurateur and celeb-chef Marcus Samuelsson).

I happen to be fairly knowledgeable about Di Fara pizza and its history, myself having been a customer there since the late 1990s. Over the years I have had the opportunity to interview the owners and watch them prep and cook in the kitchen.  They even allowed me to report on the weights of ingredients that they use when making their pizza – a level of transparency that reminded me of what Gerry Lombardi once told me about the way restaurant reviewers used to work: they would visit the kitchen to see for themselves which ingredients were being used to make the food. It goes without saying that I’ve also spent (with enjoyment) countless cumulative hours watching Dom make pizza. Of the many “facts” reported by Ms. Parla, many were dead wrong.

The “block” mozzarella that Di Fara uses is Polly-O, not Grande. (I assume by “block,” Ms. Parla meant the low-moisture mozzarella. Di Fara, having tested many of these types of mozzarella, selected Polly-O – and not even the restaurant-sized version that the distributor wants to sell them and is cheaper, but rather, the same 16-ounce hunks that you and I can buy in the grocery store.) (If Ms. Parla observed Grande-branded containers in the shop, perhaps they had held Di Fara’s fresh mozzarella (fior di latte). But what’s wrong with that? How many corner pizza shops use fresh mozzarella standard on all pies anyway?)

I believe that when Ms. Parla referred to Di Fara’s usage of that cheese as a “flaccid shaving,” she was implying that there isn’t a lot of cheese on the pizza. Di Fara actually uses plenty of cheese and, if the quantity of mozzarella didn’t wow her, she might have paid attention to the nearly-equal amount of grated aged cheese that Dom adds. This amped-up use of grated cheese (these days, parmigiana, though it has changed from time to time due to fluctuating prices), is what in my opinion gives Di Fara pizza its unique flavor.

Ms. Parla: Of course the basil is washed. Only a venomous writer would attempt to turn such generous snippage of fresh basil into a negative. Ms. Parla: Di Fara doesn’t use Berio olive oil, they just have a tin of it on display – and who cares?! Ms. Parla: gas powered pizza ovens are always opened and closed repeatedly – they’re designed with thermostats that work to keep the temperature as steady as possible. Ms. Parla: calling Dom’s sourcing “lazy” and his product “banal” is mean and wrong – and anyway, what is sloppy about Di Fara’s crust? And finally, Ms. Parla: if you’re going to bring up price, which I concede is higher at Di Fara than at most other New York-style pizzerias, it’s only fair to mention how many people your purchase fed - two pies and four slices for $75? – that’s enough food for six people. (Also, I would imagine that Di Fara charges the prices it does not only because of their ingredient costs, but because one guy makes all the pizzas (as you pointed out, it’s not fast) and the place is open just five days a week – do the math.)

I just don’t understand why, if Ms. Parla didn’t like her pizza experience at Di Fara, she just didn’t come out and say she didn’t love it. She could even have gone so far as to say she thinks the place is overrated. But to get so many facts wrong?  And then to intertwine opinion with those wrong facts to double-amplify the wrongness – and then to ice the cake with words like “lazy” to describe a 77 year old man who still works… this is what I mean by reviewers out of hand.

What exactly, Ms. Parla, could be your problem with this pizza or with the man who made it?? 
(Click photo for short video from 2012 when Di Fara allowed me weigh pizza components; larger one on Vimeo.)

Di Fara doesn’t need my rescue here. They’ve got legions of fans following every story that comes out about the place, every update that Maggie makes to the Facebook page, and when they get a chance to eat there, they gaze at every whimsical move that Dom makes while painting his next canvas of dough with those “squalid ingredients” (Ms. Parla’s words). Why? Is Di Fara a cult thing? Not in my opinion. I think Ms. Parla is the cult thing, trying to get attention by throwing invective in the face of some hardworking pizza people. Shame on her!

So, back to food writing. I think it’s great that there’s so much information out there about food and restaurants. Here in New York, I’ve long been a huge fan of Robert Sietsema, because he has intrepidly taken the time to discover food places, one at a time, in each of the outer boroughs. I owe my knowledge about many of my favorite places in New York to him, including… Di Fara Pizza, which he first wrote about in 1998. (Another fact you got wrong, Ms. Perla.)

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Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn, NY.  1424 Avenue J (at East 15th Street).  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 updates and last minute changes.

Article originally appeared on Pizzacentric (http://www.pizzacentric.com/).
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