10. Di Fara Pizza
1424 Ave. J, at E. 15th St., Midwood 718-258-1367
The place is a dump, the ordering system fraught with peril, and the wait for a slice, let alone a pie, a heroic journey into the unknown. Which isn’t to say a visit to Di Fara in the far reaches of Brooklyn isn’t worth the trip. On the contrary, no serious student of New York pizza has not been to Di Fara. True, both the round New York–Neapolitan hybrid and the Sicilian pies would be better if the crusts weren’t so stiff. But that’s a flaw that’s easily forgiven in light of what might be the most invigorating tomato sauce in town, combined with a knockout three-cheese combo. It’s pizza that’s big and bold, rough around the edges, and more than a little messy; it’s what New York–style pizza is all about. And yet the real star of the show here is not the pie but the pie man—septuagenarian Domenico DeMarco, a remarkable one-man pizza machine who produces every pie himself. This, despite the fact that he’s been on the job for 50 years, and that his movements behind the counter resemble those of a turtle with a hangover. Although DeMarco works his magic for most of his fourteen-hour day with his back turned to his audience, like some kind of pizzaiolo Miles Davis in comfortable, flour-caked shoes, he has his own humble way of playing to the crowd. “Whose pizza is this?” he mutters shyly as he cuts through the thing with an old pizza cutter. “That’s mine,” comes a rejuvenated voice from the weary mob. “Okay,” says Dom, lifting his usual downward gaze for the split second it takes to make a maestro-disciple connection, the bubbling pie its own delicious benediction.
11. Nick’s Pizza
108-26 Ascan Ave., nr. Austin St., Forest Hills; 718-263-1126
Although Nick’s Pizza of Forest Hills, Queens, served its first pie in 1993, many recall eating there long before that. “When I say the store is only fifteen years old, they say, ‘Nah, I’ve been going there forever,’” says owner Nick Angelis, and it’s easy to see why: The tin-ceilinged, arch-windowed restaurant has plenty of old-world charm. The oven, as seen through the open kitchen, looks old too, but not in a smolderingly romantic sort of way. Unlike today’s more fashionable pizza-cooking appliances, this one’s made of rough, unadorned metal, rests on caster wheels, and runs on Con Ed. It looks like something a not particularly talented 12-year-old might enter into the Soap Box Derby. Out of this bucket of bolts, however, comes some mighty fine pie. The style is Old School New York Neapolitan, with discrete puddles of sweet fresh mozzarella amid a simple swirl of good tomato sauce. The crust is crisp but flexible and somehow achieves a smoky essence. The overall effect is reminiscent of the pizza once served by the great coal-oven giants, most of whose pies Nick’s now surpasses—one more reason nostalgists think the place has been around since early man harnessed fire.
231 Mott St., nr. Prince St.; 212-966-1234
The best seats in the house, from a pizza-lover’s perspective, are the four stools at the counter facing the wood-burning oven at this bustling Nolita newcomer. Not only are they safely removed from the cacophonous fray, but they offer an unobstructed view of the Sicilian pizzaiolo, Giuseppe Cangialosi, plying his trade. To fit the restaurant’s theme, Cangialosi makes Roman-style pies: thin and crisp rounds designed to whet the appetite, not defeat it. Crunchy where Neapolitan pies are tender and without a discernible rim, Emporio’s pizzas are still fairly pliant and well-conceived—especially the guanciale-and-kale variety that’s painted with béchamel and garnished with slivers of salty Pecorino. “No one orders this, because they don’t understand it,” says Cangialosi, mournfully. “But whenever I take it out of the oven the smell is just amazing.” The flavor, too: smoky, rich, and earthy. The basic tomato-and-cheese pie, of course, requires no explanation, even if its cooked-in visage does: The buffalo mozzarella is drained, so it doesn’t soak the crust, and applied in such a manner that it virtually dissolves into the tangy tomato sauce, making it impossible to determine where one sublime ingredient ends and the other begins.
34 E. 52nd St., nr. Madison Ave.; 212-935-3434
Just so you know, Fresco isn’t a pizzeria. It’s a (rather pricey) midtown restaurant run by the Scotto clan. It also happens to be the place that introduced grilled pizza to New York, via its founding chef, the late Vincent Scotto (no relation, oddly), and the place that still executes that provincial genre best. Scotto trained at Al Forno in Providence, the birthplace of grilled pizza as we know it—or at least, of the particular recipe that traveled from Rhode Island to Fresco. What does it entail? A distinctive dough blended from white and whole-wheat flours, sweetened with a touch of molasses, then soaked in enough olive oil to make the thing taste almost fried once it’s lifted, striped with char, off the grill. The notably crunchy pie ($20, good to share at the bar) is thin as a communion wafer, its free-form surface decorated with dollops of tangy tomato sauce and the telltale grilled-pizza combination of Pecorino Romano and bel paese. In this case, mozzarella is irrelevant, and so is the oven.