Sunday, September 18, 2005

Four Slices of Brooklyn - New York City Entry #8

Trekking through Brooklyn, searching for the perfect slice, from ethnic Midwood in central Brooklyn to Brooklyn Heights, viewing Lower Manhattan, is to be reminded of the diversity of humble pizza. Bread, tomato, and cheese - the stuff of life. It should be simple, but so many choices must be made.

In New York City, pizza is typically heated by coal [correction: Di Fara uses a gas oven]: Di Fara (in Midwood), Peperoncino (in Park Slope), Caserta Vecchia (in Boerum Hill) and Grimaldi's (near Brooklyn Heights). If pizza is known by their crust, these are all within the broad range of New York style pizza, having neither the cake-crust or crispy cracker-crust found in Chicago. Of these four, Di Fara, and not the award-winning Grimaldi's, was the one that brought me to the doorstep of my childhood pizza memories.

For those who label themselves "chowists" searching for a fantasy of perfect authenticity and uncorrupted artisans, Di Fara is the place. Chowhound's Jim Leff (who gives Di Fara's his highest rating) and Ed Levine of Pizza: A Slice of Heaven (who counts Domenico DeMarco as one of his "keepers of flame") should not be dismissed lightly. As Mr. DeMarco explained to us and to Ed Levine, he is "very proud of what he does." Let us lobby for a culinary heritage award.

When we arrived in the mostly silent area of Midwood on Saturday morning, an area labeled as "Kosher Brooklyn" by Myra Alperson, Di Fara was, like its neighbors, closed. Yet, as the 11:00 a.m. opening time, we could hear Mr. DeMarco puttering behind locked doors. Finally he took pity on us and let us in through the back, even before he was fully ready. He works alone, creating pizzas by hand, one at a time. He is an artist of the first rank.

Customers must have known of his schedule as we were the first diners for about fifteen minutes. Entering through the back might not be something that would be recommended for health inspectors, but the grease and dirt certainly added points for authenticity to the 1960s pizzeria in a neighborhood for which today a pizzeria might not be a natural foodstuff. I imagine that more than one once-devout teen violated kasherut laws, chewing Pieman DeMarco's pepperoni (Pepperoni can be made from beef, but that was not the case here). In the window boxes on Avenue J were his herbs - basil, rosemary, and oregano - that were to give their lives for these exemplary pies.

This was our first pizza of the morning, and we ordered a pizza straight up and one with pepperoni. What first impressed me was the quality of the ingredients. The tomato sauce (both fresh and canned) had a complexity that comes from a master's hand adding those herbs that create the synergy of a New York pizza. The sauce was sweet, but had the pungency of an oregano base. The cheeses - God's cheese (Mozzarella, Romano, and Parmesan) - were impeccably fresh, and blended with the tomato sauce to provide a pizza in which each bite contained a consistency of flavors. The edge crust was close to the Platonic ideal of a New York bread crust.

The single weakness was that the pizza seemed slightly undercooked. Not much, but enough to notice. The bottom was not burned or even singed, and the structure of the pizza allowed each slice to become immediately flaccid when raised to one's lips. The point of the slice pointed straight down. As we could see Mr. DeMarco checking the bottom of the pizza, possibly this was his style. But in my view an erect slice should only slowly become limp, cherishing its brief victory over gravity. (Pizza is a rare food whose imagined eroticism generously lends itself bisexual fantasies. Consumption can be doubly gratifying for amorous diners). Since New York pizza is a street food, not eaten, as in Naples with knife and fork, this disappointed. However, I found Di Fara the closest slice to my ideal, and had one been able, as at a reputable steakhouse, to return the pie for a touch more heat, it might have reached my ideal. Leaving I informed Mr. DeMarco that he is my hero and so he is.

Peperoncino in Park Slope is a different place: not a pizzeria, but restaurant, much attuned with its renovated neighbors. Brooklyn is the new home of an array of mid-priced restaurants for upper-middle class New Yorkers who find the newly elegant townhouse throughout the hills and slopes of northwestern Brooklyn satisfying their real estate yearnings (even pizza follows realty). Peperoncino aims at this market, despite the connection of the pieman with the owners of Caserta Vecchia and despite the claim that their ingredients were shipped from Napoli.

I found Peperoncino's the least successful pizzas of the day, each failing to entice me. We ordered a Margherita (tomato, fior di latte [a mozzarella-type soft cow's milk cheese], and basil), a Diavola (tomato, fior di latte, and spicy sausage), and a Pizza do'mare (tomato, calamari, mussels, clams, and shrimp). The tomato sauce was properly sweet but lacked complexity. I could taste no hint of basil, no fennel pungency in the sausage, and the shrimp was tough. Add the general soupiness of the sauce, creating a soggy crust (more characteristic of the Napoli style) and, despite the pleasant surroundings, these were not pies of my dreams.

A connection exists between Peperoncino's and Caserta Vecchia in Boerum Hill (the now-gentrified locale of Jonathan Lethem's magical realist account, Fortress of Solitude). The pieman's wife's grandmother (get that?) had been the piemaker at Caserta, Maddalena Carusone, according to Ed Levine she may have been the first female commercial pie'r. Caserta Vecchia had burned down in 2002, and the new establishment is rather spiffy, although not as elegant as Peperoncino's.

The pies at Caserta Vecchia were the first of the day that had a proper structure, holding gravity at bay. Unfortunately CV does not serve classic pizzas (tomato sauce and cheese), so we selected the Margherita (mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil) and their Quattro Formaggi (Fior di Latte, Gorgonzola, Parmesan, and Fontina). The Gorgonzola provided a tang, providing the four cheeses with a rare pungency. The tomato sauce on the Margherita was, like that at Peperoncino's, a simple blend. More troubling was the crust seemed chewy. Although the structure of the pizza was fine, the crust seemed somewhat undercooked.

Finally we reached Grimaldi's, huddled modestly under the Brooklyn Bridge, perhaps the favorite pizzeria of New Yorkers. (In the 2005 Zagat's Di Fara, properly gets the nod, with the same rating as Babbo, yes!). Grimaldi's is not an old-time New York pizzeria, but a 1990 breakaway from East Harlem's Patsy's, where Patsy Grimaldi began working for his uncle in 1941 at age ten. Only in New York would half of a placemat serve as an account of the legal battles: the Brooklyn "Patsy's" lost, becoming "Grimaldi's." The hurt may still be felt in the desire of the piemen not to be photographed while working, a request that Mr. DeMarco had accepted happily.

While waits can be excruciating at Di Fara (although not for morning customers), Grimaldi's is a pizza factory. A specialized team produces these worthy pies. One man (and they are all men, when I were present) worked the ovens, a second added the tomato sauce, and a third placed the cheese. This is not artisinal work, but Fordism at its best.

In both structure and ingredients, Grimaldi's was superior. The crust was properly charred and deliciously bready, the tomato sauce was complex, and the mozzarella was smooth with a subtle and supple aftertaste. The pepperoni was not the superior spicy meat at Di Fara, but was good enough. My complaint with the Grimaldi pie may be judged in terms of my childish vision of what a pie should be. Grimaldi's does not produce a pie of consistent taste, but blotches of cheese and of tomato sauce. The pizza is a map of red and white shapes, a rather garish gifted Christmas tie. While the pizza held up better than that at Di Fara, the consistent profile of the Di Fara triangle provides the edge.

Four pizzerias, one guileless dish. When it comes to the stuff of life, men of the oven find as many ways to create memories as there are ways to live.

Di Fara
1424 Avenue J (at 15th Street)
Brooklyn (Midwood)

72 Fifth Avenue
Brooklyn (Park Slope)

Caserta Vecchia
221 Smith Street
Brooklyn (Boerum Hill)

19 Old Fulton Street
Brooklyn (near Brooklyn Heights)

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