Ask enough questions about pizza in New York, and sooner or later you’re bound to find yourself at a table in Midwood, Brooklyn. Seated in a corner that might as well be an Atlantic Ocean’s length from Greenwich, you float your eyes across years of newspaper scraps and magazine covers that blanket the walls with a recurring story. Dom spreading tomato sauce over a pliant disc of dough. Dom tugging a pie just slightly out of the oven with his bare hands to check the underside of its crust. Dom silently sprinkling snippets of fresh basil over a fully conceived pizza, a gleam of olive oil twinkling along the surface of his obsessive eye.
The story hasn’t changed a bit. In fact, it couldn’t possibly have budged one inch to the right or left without becoming something fundamentally different – a tale unworthy of myth, of fierce devotion, of the six hundred word paeans that befit a man who has quite literally crafted every pizza to face the heat of his oven since 1964. This is the legend of Domenico DeMarco, New York’s most idolized pizzaiolo, and Di Fara, the neighborhood pizzeria he’s built over the years into a veritable urban shrine.
In a city whose restaurant culture swirls madly about the grand designs of ambitious chefs, Dom manages to straddle the border between aesthete and anonymous, feet planted firmly in two worlds. This is how he manages to command the public wit beyond the masterful crunch of his pizza crust. His deliberate, immutable approach to the art of pizza and insistence on pouring his grana padano loving soul into every pie served at Di Fara places him in the pantheon of culinary titans. His near disregard for showmanship and greener fields elevates him to the status of gastronomic saints. In his painstakingly monotonous shuffle from counter to counter, Dom is the cook who was born to make history but decided to make a living.
Dom’s aging stewardship over the neighborhood slice just might be the frontier of New York pizza’s ultimate demise. In the East Village, bustling and booming Artichoke Pizza has been declared by many a stopper by as the best pizzeria in Manhattan, even crowned by some as a successor to Di Fara’s throne. Sizing up the inevitable challenge to this kind of hype, Artichoke’s Sicilian slice makes a strong case for itself. Notwithstanding a certain volume of hype, it is a serious dose of pizza as artisan as the beauts that Dom has pulled out of his oven day after day over the past forty-five years.
To call Artichoke “Manhattan’s Di Fara,” however, may overlook its place in a new wave of pizza chefs: those who seek distinction and struggle to define and redefine authenticity. They don’t set out to make a neighborhood slice. They don’t have the luxury of growing into success. Like many aspiring cooks of our day, they were born to make a living and decided to make history. Artichoke’s pizza, as delicious as it is, tells the story of success more than it does the story of a long, solitary shadow.
If I were asked to name Manhattan’s Di Fara, I would look to the Upper West Side for my answer. On Broadway, between West 101st and 102nd is Sal and Carmine, this borough’s most convincing outpost of the neighborhood slice. Tipping well over the edge of aestheticism, this is not where I go to watch a steeled virtuoso grasp clumps of fresh basil, holding court without a shot clock for locals, tourists and David Blaine.
This is somehow more powerful. This is where I find the slice that transmutes the art of pizza into an unassuming high that I find myself chasing in the folding of every slice I pick up at every other half-empty pizzeria in Manhattan. For what precious little my word is worth, it speaks to Sal and Carmine’s plain cheese as a high water mark for New York pizza.
Almost unappealing in appearance, Sal and Carmine’s plain slice hides a depth of flavor and texture. Its workman’s crust, baked just below the benchmark of sophistication, is chewy, slightly charred, slightly salty and dusted with the same flour that, without fail, rubs off your two dollars in change. Its light sauce is at one with olive oil, producing a slightly tangy flavor that those reared on sweet, rich tomato sauces might consider a severe miscalculation.
It’s not. Seamlessly unified with a generous layer of whole fat mozzarella, Sal and Carmine’s sauce completes cheese in a way New York slices would dream about if they were romantics (and sentient). The resulting slice rings of a rich, salty, oily flavor that is the stuff of classics.
This, however, is where romance ends. Just over a week ago, Sal died of heart failure. To a select string of regulars and one food writer who’s only ever conceived of Sal as a myth in his own right, this is heartbreak. Just as I will never really know Dom DeMarco, I never really knew Sal; hell, I never even learned which dreary, heavyset Italian was Sal and which was Carmine. One of the few things I took away with my slices was that one of them said, “Thank You,” while the other said, “Thank Youse.” In my right mind, I don’t even know if I can trust that sound byte of memory as accurate.
Fittingly, my other memories of Sal live on in Carmine, running the joint on Broadway as deadpan as ever. I ask for a plain slice. His shifting eyes align with mine for an awkward moment as he reaches towards the pie. His movements, while not too far removed from Dom’s meticulous shuffle, are simpler and sloppier. He hands me a slice and two flour dusted bills. He steps toward the closed street service window and fixes a vacant stare on pedestrian traffic. I take a seat in the back room, which, lacking the natural lighting and familial verve of Di Fara, is damn near depressing enough without the halo of its owner floating overhead. I bite into my slice and consider the notion that pizza, even pizza as perfect as this, can be a rut like any other.
If Di Fara is home to the ancient wonder, and Artichoke is a beacon of the highly refined contemporary, then Sal and Carmine is an old standby in the back wings of history. When they write the textbook on New York pizza, it might be little more than a footnote. A simple reference to Pushkin buried in the brutal brilliance of Dostoevsky or the preening prose of Nabokov. A tradition too ingrained in its own time to ever jump out ahead of it. A true slice of life. Goodbye, Sal.
|Sal and Carmine
New York, NY 10025
1424 Ave. J
Brooklyn, NY 11230
328 E. 14th St.
New York, NY 10003