In the sleepy Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood, one pizzeria draws the kind of crowds that you’d expect to find at a Williamsburg rooftop bar in the summertime. Except, at Di Fara’s, pizza lovers are willing to wait in a never-ending line during even the coldest of New York winters, one that stretches down Avenue J or traverses the alphabet via 15th street, depending on which way it breaks.
New Yorkers have no shortage of tremendous pizza options from which to choose, yet Di Fara fans still make the pilgrimage regularly, even the ones from the chic upper reaches of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Out-of-towners follow suit, though they tend to grumble about the unexpected schlep to get to the expectedly long queue until they take their first bite.
Success did not come easy for Di Fara’s legendary proprietor/pizza-maker Domenico DeMarco, nor did it come overnight. DeMarco opened his first pizzeria in Sunset Park, Brooklyn in 1959, about two years after the Dodgers left for Los Angeles. He, too, bolted for greener pastures when Sunset Park proved to be a bit rough around the edges.
“I wasn’t happy over there. The people were cheap,” the native Italian told the New York Times in 2004. “If you raised it a nickel, they made a big deal out of that. There were a lot of break-ins, a lot of broken windows. I got a gun pointed at me one time.”
DeMarco (the “Di” in “Di Fara”) opened his new store in 1964 with partner Frank Farina (the “Fara”) but did not achieve culinary fame until decades later. Business wasn’t exactly booming early on, but DeMarco had the foresight to continue on his journey. Sometime in the late 70s, DeMarco bought out Farina but elected to keep the mishmosh portmanteau on the marquee.
DeMarco continued to experiment and innovate, and eventually he built up a loyal local following. But, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that Di Fara reached true popularity throughout New York City and the U.S. For many, Di Fara shattered the ill-conceived notion that “pizza is pizza,” and raised expectations for what a pie ought to be.
The self-taught pizza master tweaked his methods and even his ingredients over time. His tomato sauce is savory and rich, thanks to a blend of canned and fresh tomatoes. And, depending on your order, you just might get a combination of mozzarella cheeses that are made 5,000 miles apart. DeMarco’s regular mozzarella is said to be sourced by Wisconsin’s Grande Cheese Company, while his mozzarella di bufala and fior di latte are imported from Italy. It took DeMarco a long time to nail down the right cheese ratios due to the vast differences in moisture, but the years of tinkering through trial and error have paid off in spades.
Predictably, DeMarco also has some strong opinions on what makes for an ideal crust.
“I come over here at 8 o’clock in the morning, sometimes 7, because I use fresh dough. I come from Italy, and I go back there every once in a while to see how they do it over there. They don’t throw it in the icebox. It’s not supposed to be cold dough,” DeMarco explained to The Times. “The fresh dough bubbles when you put it in the oven, and the bubbles get a little burnt. You see the pizza, and it’s got a lot of black spots, it’s Italian pizza. If you see pizza that’s straight brown, it’s not Italian pizza. We make the dough three or four times a day, because I believe in fresh dough. Besides, when you use fresh dough, the pizza comes out thin, not thick.”
DeMarco never missed a day of work in his first 48 years on the job, producing an ironman streak that makes Cal Ripken Jr. look like a truant. In 2017, he finally agreed to relax his schedule and allow his children to take a more active role in the kitchen and on the business end.
Today, the 81-year-old’s empire stretches far beyond his corner store in a placid Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Just recently, Di Fara opened up a second location within Williamsburg’s North 3rd Street Market. Not content to simply live off of his reputation, DeMarco splits his time between both stores, ensuring that the chic upper reaches of Brooklyn get the same quality as the OG customers in Midwood.