I spent a week visiting pizzerias in New York recently for my upcoming story on pizza in America for Wine Spectator. And no, I am not going to wade into the perennial war over who makes the best pizza in a city renowned for it. But two places stood out for their contrasts and similarities. One has been there for about 40 years, the other about four. Both are uncompromising in their own ways, but more importantly, the pizzas are distinctive and worth seeking out.
A 40-minute ride on the Q train brought me to the Midwood section of Brooklyn, where Di Fara Pizza sits incongruously among kosher delis and appliance stores on Avenue J. Owner Domenico De Marco has been turning out classic New York pizzas there most of his working life. He hand-crafts every element of every pie that comes out of his small oven. No assembly line here. The only cans hold San Marzano tomatoes.
I watch him work methodically and gracefully as hungry people crowd around the counter. As his daughter grates a big chunk of grana padano cheese, he reaches into a box of dough balls, lifts one onto the counter and stretches it carefully into a wide, rough disk. He ladles on a thin layer of tomato puree, scatters some cubes of fresh mozzarella and drizzles on some olive oil from a can with a long, narrow spout. It only needs about three minutes in the coal-fired oven to reach blistering doneness. For finishing touches, he sprinkles on some of the grated cheese, drizzles on a bit more oil and uses scissors to snip leaves from a bunch of basil right onto the pie.
And yes, it tastes as good as it sounds. It's all about balance, a tender crust with just an edge of crispiness, and just enough flavorful tomato, cheese and oil to balance the bread without overwhelming it.
The big, extra-wide pizza, the only size he makes, is a work of art, perhaps the quintessential New York slice. The place is a bit shabby. A soda pop case and a few not-very-inviting communal tables fill a cramped space. Most people, understandably, are taking their slices or whole pies to go. When it gets busy, I am told, the wait can exceed an hour. But the good news is that the pizzas never sit there very long getting cold, so if you just want a slice, it will almost certainly be fresh. And the people behind the counter struck me as unfailingly nice.
There are no slices to be had at Una Pizza Napoletana, tucked into the East Village on 12th Street. Fiercely independent and about half De Marco's age, owner Anthony Mangieri insists on following the old Neapolitan style. No coal-fired oven pizzas for him. He stokes a wood-fired brick oven. An ex-baker, he makes his dough from a starter he has nursed for 12 years, and serves his 12-inch pies whole, as they do in Italy, to be eaten with knife and fork. He has seating for about 30.
His six-page menu consists mostly of a treatise on Neapolitan pizza. There are four choices: the Margherita (tomato and cheese), the Marinara (no cheese), the bianco (no tomato) and the filetti (the bianco with cherry tomatoes). I tried the Margherita and Filetti.
These are revelatory pizzas. The dough attains a chewy texture that has more density than the light, soft crusts on typical New York pizzas, but it doesn't feel heavy at all. It's only crisp around the edge, which is blistered unevenly. It has a sourdough flavor from the use of the starter and a two-day proofing period, and a delicate smokiness from the sawdust Mangieri sprinkles on the fire as the pizza bakes.
The balance of flavors is extraordinary between the tomato and cubes of imported bufala mozzarella, which melt into snow-white splotches by the time the pizza is done, after about a minute in the blazing heat of the oven. Mangieri picks basil leaves from fresh bunches to put on the pie, and I especially like that they get crisp and translucent as they bake.
Mangieri insists that the best wine for his pizzas is Gragnano, a fizzy off-dry red from vineyards just outside Sorrento. It's not really sweet, but it has grapey flavors that I like with the pizza. The region's proximity to Naples suggests an affinity, and it works. The restaurant only offers about four wines.
Neither of these pizzas is cheap. A whole pie at Di Fara is $23 ($4 for a slice). Una Pizza Napoletana charges $21. These are purists' pizzas, not for those whose ideal is "the works." But you won't find many others quite like them.
Jeffrey Hellman — New Haven, CT — March 3, 2008 1:56pm ET
Glenn S Lucash — March 3, 2008 2:20pm ET
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — March 3, 2008 3:13pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 3, 2008 3:42pm ET
David Schwartz — Langhorne, PA — March 3, 2008 8:13pm ET
Matthew Slywka — Seymour, CT — March 4, 2008 12:51pm ET
Jeffrey Ghi — New York — March 4, 2008 7:09pm ET
John Phinney — Manhattan, — March 5, 2008 12:23am ET
Mark Horowitz — Brooklyn, USA — March 5, 2008 10:08am ET
Damien Carter — March 5, 2008 11:43am ET
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