I've never liked pizza as much as everybody else seems to. I don't know why. I definitely ate a lot of it during my younger, much fatter years. I guess it just gets boring to me after a few bites. Unless it's really good pizza (not the dollar a slice variety), then I can hang.
And really good pizza was what I was looking for. So I took a cab with my photographer friend Katy to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood to avoid being late to my meeting with Domenico DeMarco, the man who makes the pies at the legendary Di Fara Pizza. DeMarco was born near Naples in Italy and moved to Brooklyn in 1959. His original partner's last name was Farina, and the name Di Fara's was chosen as a combination of their two names. He bought out that partner in 1978, but continues to keep the name. All that matters is the pizza, I guess, which is consistently ranked the best in the city by Zagat, Eater, the Daily News, and even Anthony Bourdain.
By the time we pulled up just before 11 AM, there was already a line of people waiting at the door. I called my contact there—Domenico's daughter, Margaret Mieles, who is the manager of the pizzeria. After a few tries, she cracked the door open just a bit to let me and my photographer in, which didn't seem to go over too well with the people in line.
Inside, Di Fara looked just as described in profiles I'd read the days prior: like a standard pizzeria. Linoleum floors, a few tables with chairs, walls covered in accolades and glowing write-ups. Domenico was busy creating the first few pies of the day, spreading sauce, drizzling prepared pies with olive oil and putting fresh basil on finished ones. The smell of fresh baked bread with three cheeses (two types of mozzarella!) and San Marzano tomato sauce at this place is definitely not like the pizza joint on the corner. There's the lighter, round pie and the heavier, twice-baked cheesy square pie that a few regulars mentioned is the one to get. When you consider that Domenico is the only person who makes all the pies in this place (which follows his philosophy about how a pizzeria should be run), it makes a little more sense that slices are five dollars a piece. The place is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays so the old man can rest.
I attempted to ask him a few questions, which didn't go over well—he didn't seem to understand what I was saying—so Margaret and I stepped aside and to talk about the business while Domenico continued making pizzas like he's been doing, with the same oven and in the same building, since 1965.
MUNCHIES: Do you know what your father does in the morning to get into the right state of mind to make pizzas all day? Margaret Mieles: He gets up, he has a cup of espresso, he comes into the pizza shop, and he turns the oven on to prepare it. We cook at a very high temperature. Basically, he comes in an hour and a half before opening time. All he has is that espresso. We push him to eat breakfast on Sundays. That's it—he sits in the dining room and enjoys the few moments of being by himself before the crowds pour in.
Does your father still enjoy eating pizza? Yes, he eats pizza every day, to make sure everything's right.
How have the ovens changed since you opened? Well, the ovens change in the sense that they break down. It's been almost 50 years. The highest temperature of most new pizza ovens is around 625 degrees, but ours goes up to 1,000.
Is it difficult to find new parts to replace malfunctioning ones? Yes, yes it is. So, we do have some oven repairmen who are able to find the parts. If there's a newer product that does the same job, we replace it.
How long has your father been making pizza? He's been on Avenue J here for 49 years. Before that he was working as a farmer on Long Island. He made pizzas in a shop on 4th Avenue [in South Brooklyn] for I don't know how many years. He worked there for some time and wanted to open his own shop.
Are you doing anything for your 50th anniversary? We started private group seatings about 15 months ago. People put 20 of their friends together or even more. The word is getting around about that—it's new and very popular thing here. We couldn't roll back prices because it just would be impossible to keep up. My father is 77 years old!
I'm thinking of doing a few group seatings for the 50th anniversary, several of them, so people don't have to experience the wait. Everything here is imported, so we're in no position to roll back prices and have that kind of chaos in our life!
What do you think about the American pizza scene over the last ten years, with places like Roberta's becoming very popular? I feel like making pizza is something that so many people are doing—so many pizzerias, and every few feet, another one pops up. It's amazing when you're recognized as doing it as an art, and not just as a "pizza man." I have tried some of the other ones out there but I feel like we're doing something unique in the sense that we import our ingredients, which yield a higher quality of pizza.
Not to say that other places don't make a quality product as well. I find myself not taking photos of people; I have a habit of taking photos of what I'm eating! People have developed a real passion for it with social media and the whole internet thing. To be a pizzeria and to get on the map is such an honor for anyone who's received that type of recognition.
There's been such a proliferation of dollar pizza slices with lower-quality ingredients. Do you feel immune to that because of your "built-in" clientele? I think that, in any business, it's always a smart move to keep your costs down. A lot of people look for a high profit. The only way to do that is to keep costs very low. It's difficult even for us because prices go up on our supplies. We've remained at the same price because we know that people assume it's a high price—if they understood what goes on behind the scenes, they might tell us to charge more.
It's amazing to see if you do something long enough and make those sacrifices, the reward isn't being a billionaire but bringing joy into people's lives. That's what separates one from another.
Is that the sign out front the original one from 1964? We opened in '65! My dad, when he does interviews, says 1964, but it's 1965.
No, it's not the original sign, we did do a renovation in the '80s to the sign. We have a picture of us from 1965, so we have a photo of the original look.
Has your clientele changed over the years? It's incredible. People are coming from all over the world. It's rare that we get anybody from the block anymore. It's rare that we see the locals that we used to serve all the time. They miss being able to just walk into the store and get a slice of pizza in ten minutes, at most. They want us to do a local's day.
When did that stop being normal? In 1999, Jim Leff wrote a book called the Eclectic Guide to Greater New York Eating and that was the first time we went, "OH! We're doing something great here, somebody wrote about us!" I would say the last ten years were where we've fully maintained that status as being in the top two. I remember when it was so exciting for us to hear that we were the best in the neighborhood, because we work so hard. Then when you start reading you're the best in Brooklyn, then best in New York. Maintenance of your reputation is something you have to do every single day. A lot of people are enduring two hour waits, and with my dad aging and more people finding out about us, he's not going to move any faster.
Did there used to be more pizzerias of this neighborhood of similar ilk? This is predominantly a kosher area. There are several pizzerias on this avenue that are all kosher. We're the only non-kosher pizzeria operating on Avenue J. We are the main Italian pizzeria in this neighborhood.
What does your father do on his day off? He's off on Mondays and Tuesdays, so on Mondays, he likes to go to Mulberry Street in Little Italy. That's his favorite moment of the week.