The Mythic Di Fara
On our annual trip to New York City in September, we went to the famed and venerable Difara. Domenico DeMarco has been producing heavenly pies from his original and only Brooklyn locale since 1964. He and his family hosted us during the opening hour of business. Phil, our kitchen manager, wrote about his experience:
Twenty-nine of us came on Labor Day, on our annual pilgrimage to the old country: New York City. The coolness of autumn began to blow in from Montauk, past Coney Island.
We came; waiters and cooks, managers and owners, to eat our way back to the source. We came to eat pizza, which is our birthright. We came to pay homage to the shops that came before us and inspired us to do this thing that we do. For some there is Graceland or Abbey Road; for me there is DiFara.
I had started a correspondence with the pizziaolo’s daughter at the beginning of the summer, before the heat spiked that week in August when it was simply too hot to make pizza in Brooklyn.
The Pizzaiolo’s Daughter
The old man sat down, and his son pressed out pie while the neighborhood of Midwood stood on line at the corner of Avenue J & 15th Street.
It was Jewish New Year. The Hasidim were dressed to the nines. Large families moving flock and duck-like across 15th Street towards Ocean Parkway. The baby buggy wheels were white rubber; the quaintness of the 20th century hangs well on the father in his wide brimmed hat, the wife in her wife wig, the tall, healthy daughters and sons. Construction guys in yellow hard hats shoot the shit with East Indian candy store men. The pizzaiolo’s second son comes out of the side of the shop, stiff in his shoulders, stiff in his neck, and bends at the waist to roll up the case iron gate.
I had asked her, in the letter, for the honor of meeting her father, Domenico DeMarco. He is a real pizzaiolo, a master of the craft, and a legend in the world of dough and sauce. I told her the truth: I work for a Home Slice Pizza and I love what pizza can do.
She worked with her father and her brother in the back kitchen. She would not handle the dough; she had made that mistake before. She smiled at me from across the kitchen, the phone’s spiral cord wrapped around her long fingers, the handset cradled against her shoulder. I stood at the open window, at the corner of J &15th, and returned the smile. “Come around to the side,” she invites me. Her accent, Brooklyn through and through, pours over me. Its kindness is resonant.
The Pizzaiolo’s Son
The back kitchen is as small. There is a new washer/dryer set in one corner and an ancient stovetop and oven on the other. Dough trays are stacked in the hallway leading to the pizza ovens and worktable. In the back kitchen, a long, wide bench table is immaculately clean, spices stacked to the right. The light shines off the worn, loved, and polished wood. She introduces me to her brother, who is moving around the kitchen as only a man can in his most natural habitat, with the ease of a blind man, in a labyryth of his own design.
His best friend had moved to Abilene, he told me. He is my age and speaks spitfire Brooklynesse. We talked about dough, and the fickle fate of a pizza man when the weather turns. We recounted batches of dough lost to high-pressure zones and freak storms. We compared dry yeast and cake yeast and agreed: some guitars just play better when played LOUD.
The son walks the first dough of the day out to the front, carrying it in both hands, and lays it on his father’s table. Then he returns to the back and stretches thin, old dough over the rectangular pans for Sicilian pies to be made later.
The pizzaiolo’s daughter comes in and asks me if I would like to meet her father.
Domenico DeMarco was sitting at the head of a long table, in the middle of the shop, facing the window and the street. His hair was immaculately combed; the way men of his generation keep their hair. His shirt was crisp, his pants pressed. Only the flour on his shoes and the thickness of his hands betrayed his profession, his avocation.
I thanked him for the opportunity to meet with him and he was gracious in his response. His glass left red rings on the tabletop as he shook my hand, nodding to meet my glance.
A head peeks in from the street, into the shop.
Everyone knows Signore DeMarco. Even a lifetime of Brooklyn has not dulled his Italian. He greets the guy from the street with an old man’s hoarse greeting, not unlike some famous actor’s portrayal of someone from the Old Country.
He weighs nothing. Not any more. He’s been making pizza, in THAT oven, since 1964. He was making pizza in Naples, his home, thirteen years before that.
“I don’t measure nothing no more. When I was younger, when I was a younger man, I would get up in the morning, and find out what the weather man was gonna say, because, when you are a younger man, you need all the help you can get, cause you know nothing.”
I asked him about fresh mozzarella. He shrugged and looked around his tiny shop and asked me WHEN he was going to make this mozzarella? WHERE was he gonna put this mozzarella. He was too polite to point out that he was a pizzaiolo, not a cheese monger. Instead he told me this:
“I buy the best and the price don’t matter. You spend nothing, you get nothing. I buy the best buffalo mozzarella because why I gonna waste my time with something else. Olive oil, too. People go cheap on olive oil. Crazy.”
Experience, he told me, was everything. He did not have the gift, he admitted, and didn’t believe he really hit his stride until somewhere in the mid 80s.
“Run your ovens hot,” he told me, “and don’t never give nothing away for free. A thing has got worth. When you say it’s free, it’s got no worth. That’s why I don’t put no water in my tomato sauce. What flavor has water got? What’s water gonna do for the sauce?”
“They told me,” he confided with me at the end, “to leave this neighborhood, back in the 70s. All the Italians were leaving. The neighborhood was changing. It wasn’t gonna be like old times no more, and no kind of neighborhood for some Italian pizziaolo and his family.”
He paused in his story to lean a little closer and tell me, “I never left and it’s the best thing I ever did. This new neighborhood, these people, they’re good people. And those people that gonna leave, they always gonna leave – so go. But me? I stayed. What I gonna do? This is where my shop is. This is where my family is. I ain’t never gonna leave.”
Another face appears in the window, this time a cute middle-aged hausfrau with a smart haircut.
“Morning, Dom,” she purrs.
The old man smiles as only old man can at a middle-aged sexpot half his age.
He shakes the remaining ice in his empty glass and gets up to walk into his kitchen. He touches the oven door handles, the make table’s marble top, the meat grinder attached to the table. He lifts lids off the dough trays and peeks at the soft mounds of young dough, only two hours old.
DiFara is an hour away from open and the street traffic, even on this Jewish holiday, is literally knocking on its door. The neighborhood knows to get there early; the wait starts before they open. My pizza crew, my beloved Home Slice Pizza crew, is on a platform in Manhattan, waiting for the B train, which is running late. The pizzaiolo’s daughter winces when the her father agrees to start making pies for the public; she was going to hold the shop’s open so our crew could see her father work without the hustle and bustle of a morning push. There is no arguing with her father, of course, and the doors open.
Each person who walks in greets Dom with respect and love. In the first half hour the crowd is nothing but neighborhood. It is too early for the hipster tourists who have heard that DiFara is the best, and have made the trek to this part of Siberia to find out for themselves.
The dough is incredibly soft and airy, wet and rectangular. He reaches into a bowl of flour and sprinkles some on he dough, some on the peel to his right. He lays his hands into it, pressing the sides out and defining the edge. He is not quick but deliberate in his movement. There is nothing wasted, and no frenzy to get in his way. Within a moment the gauzy polygon of dough is even and round. He spoons the sauce on the pie, hand grates the mozzarella. He pours oil from a copper urn and sprinkles parmesan from the square pan at the base of what was once a meat grinder. His daughter is flipping over the sheets of a yellow legal pad, taking phone orders, sweetly informing people of the wait before the shop has even opened.
The old man is pissed. “The ovens aren’t right,” he sing-songs his disappointment. Both the daughter and the son reflexively move out of his way as he storms around the small kitchen, frowning at the first pie, which is cooking incorrectly.
Another piece of dough is placed in front of him and he pauses before he addresses it, lays hands on it. He moves the same way as before: deliberate, patient, and exacting. I stand at the corner of his store, watching the neighborhood file in, watching the old man in his element, and am at peace with the world. The old man steps on 2 cases of tomatoes next to the oven so he can reach the top deck and fire into it. He descends and meets another neighborhood greeting with a smile, while mumbling an order to his daughter, who is quick to move and make it happen.
His pies are black on one side. He pulls them from the deck bare handed. He cuts the basil with scissors and oils the basil that is steaming on the freshly cooked pie. He cuts the pie, starting in the center, and see-saws his cut back and forth, each slice clean and even.
My Home Slice crew arrives. We are pizza people, remember. Each waiter, each cook, each cashier watches intently as the flow of business ramps up, as the phone’s ringer goes operatic, as the old man’s ovens fill. Two of my cooks, Tracy and Mike, stand next to me as we watch from the side. We deconstruct his moves and technique, like semi-pro athletes watching an Olympic champion, like garage rockers fifteen feet from Jimmy Page. We are, the three of us, awed.
We start eating the pie and are immediately, physically changed. Our waitress from Longview, TX gets in a conversation with a neighborhood guy who had been at Woodstock. Most crowd into the already full shop, shoulder to shoulder with the regulars and other pilgrims. The rest stand on the corner, paper plates in hands, eating slice pizza in the light of an early Fall afternoon. It is a common sight, there at DiFara.
I cross the small kitchen to hug the pizzaiolo’s daughter, in her crisp white apron, with her pulled back hair framing the beautiful line of her cheek. She hugs with full force, like she means it, because she does. We kiss each other on the cheek, as relatives often do, and parted with the knowledge that we would see each other again – so sweet is our destiny.
The pizzaiolo’s daughter knew what had always been true: pizza can make the world a better place – person to person. In the end, a shop is all about integrity and respect. And finally, love. There are no secrets, when it comes to love. There are no short cuts, when it comes to integrity. There is only us, two pizza shops, separated by 1500 miles, trying to do the same thing, day after day: make the world even more beautiful, one pizza at a time.
For my part, I am eternally grateful to the pizzaiolo’s daughter, Margy DeMarco Mieles, her brother, Michael DeMarco, and her father, Domenico DeMarco. They showed me, and all of Home Slice, a level of kindness and compassion that is the very root and cornerstone of hospitality, and made me feel at home. I will not soon forget the gruff perfection of the father, the quiet resolve of the son, or the hard, loving kindness of the daughter. I will not soon forget the taste of quality ingredients prepared with love, and cooked with finesse. I will not forget the tower of ovens older than even myself, and the man who coaxes them to brilliance. I will only try, everyday, to bring that kind of love, and that kind of diligence to the art I am allowed to practice and to the crew I am blessed to call mine. As that is what they, the crew deserve. That is what this, our neighborhood, deserves.
I cannot wait until I get the honor of walking the pizzaiolo’s daughter through this kitchen, feed her our food, and introduce her to this, our neighborhood.
After all was said and done, that was what was best upon returning. South Austin is not Brooklyn. And I am not the old man. But we, Home Slice Pizza, are a neighborhood shop. And this, our neighborhood, is full of the same sweet people, the same kind generosity, and we cooks and waiters, managers and cashiers, are lucky and grateful to be a part of it.
The pizzaiolo’s daughter is moving a million miles a second but stops completely to bring me behind the counter, next to the old man, so I can pose for a photo. Dom stops what he’s doing, and shakes my hand while the cameras click and snap. He pats my hand in his, warm and paternal, gives it one last squeeze, and turns to address his oven, shepherd of his pies.