The following is posted with the permission of David Rosengarten's e-column Tastings, a weekly email sent out from www.davidrosengarten.com
Pizza with a Smile.....or Not
FILED: January 16, 2007
Way back in January, 2002, I published a piece in The Rosengarten Report about New York City pizza—classifying the different types, as well as identifying the very best pizzerias in the five boroughs. I found my #1 "classic New York pizza" at a very old, very small pizza parlor in the heart of Brooklyn called Di Fara, run by Domenic De Marco. "Virtually no one outside of the neighborhood knows about this place," I wrote, "so hurry here please, before De Marco does something sensible like retire."
If you read that piece, I hope you took my advice. Five years later, De Marco is a superstar to a much, much wider public. He has not retired. He is still around, receiving accolades on a regular basis from all quarters; the 2007 Zagat Survey, for example, calls Di Fara pizza "da best pizza in Noo Yawk," and nary a freshly researched New York pizza story fails to agree. (The current issue of New York magazine calls De Marco "the last of the old pizza masters.")
Having not been back to Di Fara since all this happened, I thought it was high time I got myself over to Avenue J to see how the old maestro has handled the boom.....and to see whether you should put this place on your itinerary. I set out from Manhattan on a warm, sunny, jacket-less Saturday in January, my spirits buoyed by the unusual weather.
As I approached Di Fara, at about 3:45 PM, I caught my first glimpse of The Modern Disaster: lines pouring out onto the once-tranquil street. The good news: The people in line were not freezing. The bad news: They were confused and surly.
I saw two lines on the sidewalk: one had about 6 people and led to a window outside the store, the other line had about 10 people and led directly to the counter inside the store. Not knowing quite what to make of the two lines, or which one to join—and with no signs or indications—I took a guess, asking someone on the "window" line if this line was for take-out. "That would be a good guess," the waiting girl told me. "That's what we thought. But it's not. You can take out from either line."
All right. Fair enough. "So what's the difference between the two lines?" I asked. She pointed at the longer line, the one going in the door, and said "that one's faster." Hmmmm. Interesting.
Couldn't help myself. "If that one's faster," I gently asked, "how come you're on this line?" At that point a sweatshirt-clad ex-hippie of a certain age in front of her turned abruptly to me and said: "because we're idiots."
Allrighty. This guy either originally came to us from hell, or, perhaps, waiting on a slow line for a slice of 'za nudged him in a demonic direction. I needed more info. Exactly how long had he been waiting?
I cannot answer that queston, but I can tell you this: I got on the counter line, the longer one......and, other than a lot of tile-counting, nothing happened for 30 minutes except the capture of a few centimeters. That's not a typo—thirty minutes.
What I observed was this. The old guy, De Marco, was making every single pizza by hand (normally a good thing!). After obsessing about the placement of the dough on the pizza paddle, and all the other details, he might—if toppings were ordered—disappear into the back room for two or three minutes to pick up a handful of mushrooms.
Very occasionally, the only other worker in the place, De Marco's son, would stride from the back room with a handful of mushrooms or sausage.
So.....including the making of the pie, the placement of the pizza in the oven (sometimes requiring a stepladder), the removal, the final grating of cheese on the cooked pie (for which the cheese is grated pie-by-pie, as the pies come out of the oven), the final placement of fresh basil leaves on each pie (for which the basil is snipped pie-by-pie by scissors set on the other side of the store), and the final drizzle of olive oil (which, blessedly, is only a few feet behind De Marco's finishing spot).....the total labor time (not including cooking) for each pie is probably a good 4-5 minutes. Hey, artisanal makes me happy! And you may want to trek to Brooklyn to see this dinosaur operation!
But here's what one disorganized man taking 4-5 minutes per pie does to a line of 30 people. After about half an hour of waiting, I started counting pies in the oven like a card shark counts aces at the casino during blackjack. I was able to pretty much identify who in line was waiting for each pie—except for De Marco's mistakes, which were many.
At about that time (30 minutes), De Marco looked up at the guy at the front of the line and said "what do you want?" The guy kept his cool pretty well, but said "I already ordered a pie, half mushroom, half pepperoni." De Marco said nothing, but turned around and started making a pie.....half mushrooms, half pepperoni.
Because that guy was in line before I arrived, I'm guessing he had given his order at least 35 minutes earlier, and that it had taken him 30-50 minutes in line before he gave his order the first time. So, after waiting at least an hour, maybe closer to an hour and a half, he now had to put his order in a second time and continued to wait for his pie.
Also at that moment, I became aware that the only pies in the oven were whole pies with intended buyers—that there were no slice-dedicated pies in the oven.
I was there with two friends, who had been lucky enough to move in on one of the few tables in the place—and all we wanted was three slices of the famous pizza (for this was the first stop on a Brooklyn pizza odyssey). So, concerned that when I got to the front of the line there'd be no slices.....and now, after 35 minutes, within one human rank of reaching the counter.....and spotting De Marco's son in a brief appearance from the back room.....I asked the pizza progeny politely "are you guys serving slices?"
Simple and fair question, yes?......especially for a man who has waited quietly for over half an hour in line. De Marco Jr. darted his eyes in my direction and growled "whatever comes outta the oven."
Hmmm. Having failed Psychic Prediction in high school, I had no idea whether that meant I'd be seeing slices anytime soon. But while I was pondering my field position, my odds, my options—like get the hell out of hell—an unfortunate soul, a few inches to my left and slightly ahead of me, who had obviously been pushed to her own personal breaking point, brayed the following sweet words at me: "Don't push into line!"
Ever the reasonable philosopher, and truly concerned that she misunderstood, I responded thusly: "No, no, I'm not ordering slices—I'm just asking if there will be slices available so I know whether I should stay or not." "Doesn't matter!" she shoots back. "You don't talk to them until you're the first one in line!!"
Oh dear. A handful of cheese and tomatoes on a piece of dough has ruptured civilization. I quickly lost my appetite, and my desire to stay the course.
One of my companions was a great eating buddy from Florida who, from his table, sensed my distress. When he walked over to me in the diabolic line, and I expressed the thought that our exit strategy should most definitely be "NOW!"
"Hang on," he said. "We invested all this time. Let's take what we can get when you get to the front of the line." As I watched two lovely girls walk away from the counter with a whole pie and big smiles—and as the oil-splattered counter itself suddenly loomed before my eyes—I agreed.
Getting to the front, of course, is only the first step towards actually getting pizza. It was a good 10 or 15 minutes later before I was asked what I wanted (and I certainly wasn't going to say anything before I was asked, not with Cruella de Ville glaring at me).
"Three slices, please," I said with as much perk as I could muster. "No slices," said the dastardly spawn. I was crushed, like a San Marzano tomato. "But....but....I see two slices of square pizza there," I murmured. "Oh yeah. We got square slices," said pizza boy. "You want 'em?"
I knew from my keen observation that these square slices were sitting on the counter since that moment long, long ago that I got on line—but, with my friend's wisdom ringing in my ears, I agreed to an exchange of cash for two old, cold, square ones. It was the very best I could do.
After a quick re-heating, the square slices and I were sitting at the table with the boys. They were dreadful. Not the boys—they were in high spirits, much higher than mine. But the sodden, oil-soaked squares of pretty flavorless dough were, shall we say, far from the best pizza in Noo Yawk.
"I am really, really sorry," I said to my out-of-town friend, "that you had to come all this way, and waste all this time, for this. I wish you could have tasted a fresh, regular slice of Di Fara pizza."
"Maybe I can," he whispered. Now, with the din of the disgruntled line behind me, I couldn't quite make out the bewitching words that my friend was using at that other table. All I know is that two minutes later, he was back at our table with the square slice still in one hand.....and a fresh, regular slice in the other. "They were very nice," he said," and they'd had enough of their pie."
Mama mia. So it came down to this: to get a slice of pizza at Di Fara, you have to go up to a couple of complete strangers and beg for it. Not that I minded, mind you.....after all, this is major 'za we're discussing......but there's gotta be something wrong with a system that reduces a man to that.
The pizza was good. Really good. Though not quite up to my five-year-old memory. Why? I remember more flavor then; this one was quieter. But it still had that droopy, soupy, wet-but-crisp textural complexity that the best Neapolitan and New York Neapolitan pizzas do. My faith in pizza was still secure—though my faith in humanity was a little shaken.
"OK Dave," said my other friend, a Manhattan buddy. "I know exactly what you need."
"Alcohol?" I asked, over the waning Diet Pepsi.
"Yes," he said, ".....along with your next pizza."
And so it came to pass that one short car ride later I was sitting in another pizza place, this one on Flatbush Avenue, anticipating another pizza experience.
Now, I must confess that at first I was taken aback. As much as I hated my experience at Di Fara, I am used to pizza decor and service like that. That's how it's s'posed to be (though considerably less horrific).
A few minutes later, here I am walking into Franny's, a really cool and trendy, exposed-brick-wall kind of a place with sexy and seductive lighting. Rather than just the pizza maker and his son, there's a bevy of slim and beautiful waitresses, as well as three hip-looking young chefs standing at the brick pizza oven in the open kitchen.
I am disoriented.I am further disoriented by the menu—which seems to have, along with pizza, exactly the kind of big-deal modern restaurant quality-in-simplicity that you find at a place like Zuni Café in San Francisco. Here's a look at the offerings:
New Harvest Olio Verde and Sea Salt- $7
Cranberry Beans and Bottarga di Tonno- $9
Chicken Liver and Pancetta- $9
Beef Tongue with Horseradish Salsa- $9
House-Cured Pancetta, Soppressata and Coppa- $16
Robiola Bosina with Toasted Filone- $9
Potato Croquettes- $9
Escarole with Meyer Lemon and Parmigiano Reggiano- $11
Satsumas and Cara Caras with Hot Pepper and Bitetto Olive Salsa- $11
Cauliflower Salad with Olives, Anchovies and Pickled Vegetables- $11
Baccala Montecato with Fried Polenta- $13
Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Sea Salt- $8
Tomato, Garlic and Oregano- $12
Tomato and Buffalo Mozzarella- $14
Tomato and Buffalo Mozzarella with Anchovies and Chilies- $15
Tomato and Provolone Piccante with Wood-Roasted Onions- $14
Tomato and Mozzarella with House-Made Sausage- $15
Buffalo Mozzarella, Garlic and Oregano- $13
Clams, Chilies and Parsley- $16
Looks great, right? But is this the kind of place where you expect to find major New York pizza?
Turns out the answer is.....yes!!! This is pizza on the same plane of quality as Di Fara's pizza! There are a few differences, however. Di Fara's crust, though thin, is thicker than Franny's, more of a throwback to the old New York pizzeria days.
Franny's crust is thinner, lighter, drier, crisper—catering more to that modern sensibility that can't get its pizza thin enough. But.....this is no matzoh pizza; Franny's crust, beautifully charred and blistered, has plenty of sensuality to it. What goes on the pie at Franny's is also a little more modern—not just in the "toppings," but even in the cheese choice (which seems a little less grana-ish at Franny's, a little more Gruyere-like). But fear not: though this pizza may not make you think of Brooklyn in the 1960s, it will definitely make you think of great New York.....and great Rome!...... in the 21st century.
And to which establishment would I rather go? I gotta tell ya—as if I have to—I was really scarred by my Di Fara experience. Usually, the food's the thing as far as I'm concerned. But the level of sheer managerial incompetence here was mind-boggling.
This was perhaps the worst restaurant operation I've ever stepped into—including a lot of huts and shacks from southeast Georgia to southeast Asia.
I have nothing against the old guy; he seemed kind of pleasant when I met him five years ago. And there's no questioning his talent as a pizza-maker. But how much hubris do you have to have to ignore the fact that people are waiting an hour-and-a-half for a slice of pizza.....and sometimes not getting it? Hire a few people! Hire one person! Fix this!
Franny's is not only another world, but it's a wonderful version of another world. The servers were as sweet, knowledgeable and competent as could be. The food I tasted was delicious. The prices are reasonable. The selection of wines is just right.
I am planning to get back there as soon as I can to order everything on the menu and have a grand experience.I am not planning to go back to Di Fara anytime soon. And that's coming from me—the one who has made a career favoring funk over fashion.
1424 Ave. J
295 Flatbush Avenue
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