The pizza at Di Fara Pizza on Avenue J in Midwood, Brooklyn is amazing (among the best in NYC). Owner Domenico DeMarco has run the place for over 40 years and makes each pie by hand.
The place is a restaurant consultant’s nightmare though: The wait for food is over an hour. Sometimes two. You can’t call up and order a pie either. You have to do it in person. Ask how long your order will take and you get a shrug. There’s a permanent line all the way out the door yet the only person allowed to touch the pizzas is DeMarco. He grows his own spices on the windowsill and cuts the basil right onto the pies with a pair of shears. Prices are double what other neighborhood pizzerias charge: A regular pie costs $20. A slice costs $5 (but you can only get one of those when DeMarco feels like it). Also, the place is a mess. No one wipes the tables after meals. Stacks of used bottles line the walls. Smoke from the ovens clogs the whole room.
I’m sure if you asked restaurant business experts, they’d say he should take phone orders and reservations. He should expand to a bigger location and hire others to work with him in the kitchen. He should clean the place up and buy some nicer tables. But it’s pretty clear that DeMarco doesn’t give a shit.
The freedom of small businesses
DeMarco doesn’t care about experts, franchising, or expansion because he doesn’t have to. That’s what you can do when you run your own small business. You can stay small. You can create your own thing and keep it the way you want it. You can take pride in what you’re creating and oversee everything that comes out of your oven. If people don’t like the wait, they can go somewhere else. If they don’t want to pay extra for the ingredients you grow yourself or import from Italy, that’s fine. You can be a perfectionist and take as long as you want. And the customers that care about what you care about will flock to you.
The reward: You get to satisfy customers and make money. But beyond that, you get to love what you do. Your work doesn’t feel like a job. It feels like art. You get to feel passion. Instead of counting the days to retirement, you keep working. Because you’re already doing what you love.
“There’s no money in the world they could pay me for it”
In “Charred Bubbles, and Other Secrets of the Slice,” DeMarco explains:
Nobody taught me to make the pizza. You gotta pick it up for yourself. All of these 40 years, I keep experimenting. My pizza is good, because I use fresh tomatoes. They come from Italy, from Salerno. Then I started to get mozzarella from Italy, from my hometown in the province of Caserta. It’s $8 a pound, and this parmesan, it’s $12. It comes twice a week. This might have been made two days ago, or three days ago.
I do this as an art. I don’t look to make big money. If somebody comes over here and offers me a price for the store, there’s no price. There’s no money in the world they could pay me for it. I’m very proud of what I do.
Here DeMarco explains how he makes his pies and whether he counts hours:
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. 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.
We start to close at 10 o’clock, but I never count the hours, because I’m a farmer. We go into the farm early in the morning, and we go home when the moon arrives. No problem…
I don’t intend to retire. But I want my kids to take over the place. They’ve got to follow me. They’ve got to follow my idea. Like I said, I don’t take the shortcuts.
Pizza has become considered a fast food. This one is slow food. Anything you do, when you do it too fast, it’s no good. The way I make a pizza takes a lot of work. And I don’t mind work.
Here’s a video someone shot of DeMarco at work. As a video, it’s a bit slow-moving. But I guess that’s the point.
gwgon 18 Aug 08
To be slightly more jargony about it, this is a “lifestyle business.”
Either a business that you run and keep small because your goal is to simply support the lifestyle you want (maybe working odd hours or whatever), or you run the business as your lifestyle.
The trick to a lifestyle business is that you have to be pretty exceptional to pay the bills. You’re paying the bills with quality and not volume. You don’t get to make many mistakes doing it this way.
Those look like tasty pizzas; I like the way that the big hunks of cheese and basil look on the pie.
JFon 18 Aug 08
To be slightly more jargony about it, this is a “lifestyle business.” Either a business that you run and keep small because your goal is to simply support the lifestyle you want (maybe working odd hours or whatever), or you run the business as your lifestyle.
Every business and every job is a lifestyle business or lifestyle job. Some fill your life with frustrations and stress, and some make it enjoyable. The smart folks are the ones who find the later.
Tobie Langelon 18 Aug 08
Montreal-based Schawrtz’s has a similar story.
Jimon 18 Aug 08
I’m somewhat of “restaurant business expert”. I wouldn’t have him change a thing. As long as his place gets cleaned at the end of each day.
JFon 18 Aug 08
Tobie: Schawrtz’s in Montreal is a great call. Definitely in the same vein as this pizza joint.
Tiegon 18 Aug 08
That reminds me of Wolfe’s BBQ in Denver, very close to the capitol building. It’s just one guy that’s been serving BBQ (including really good smoked tofu) for over 20 years.
Massimo Sgrellion 18 Aug 08
You are right. The problem is how to design and produce something really special, like a craftsman. Sometimes you need more than one try to catch the right direction, but the only important thing is not to give up trying to make the perfect “handcrafted object”.
By the way, the original Italian pizza is made in a wood-burning oven :) otherwise is results being too dry
GeeIWonderon 18 Aug 08
Shit. I skip lunch and 37s posts a big friggin pizza.
Sort of related, by the way, how the EU Neapolitan pizza specs require not only certain ingredients, but also the assembly and presentation. Food as art, or at least a canvas, indeed.
Love the Schwartz and eat there whenever I can —but food as (visual) art? Not sure about that one.
krameron 18 Aug 08
much like the soup nazi, DeMarco suffers for his craft. I wonder if anyone gets kicked out of Di Fara Pizza?
bradon 18 Aug 08
Another Montreal business like this is Sushi Volant, which is generally the best sushi in town. The sushi chef is a master from Japan and if you want sushi you have to order it 24 hours ahead of time. It’s only take-out, there’s no restaurant. You can try your luck and wander in to see if there are any pre-prepared plates for the taking, but if you want anything specific you have to order it the day before. Nobody minds because the sushi is so good, and the business is very successful.
Ryanon 18 Aug 08
Reminds me of Franco Manca in Brixton. Always a huge line waiting to be seated in this tiny place, and one little bespectacled Italian guy working the oven, singing and shouting. Surprisingly, it’s actually pretty cheap (£6 or so), and since they use a Neapolitan brick oven and keep their menu small, it only takes about two minutes to get your pizza once you’ve ordered.
I always wish they did longer hours or had a bigger place, but I expect their outlook is similar – why, when you can do what you love the way you want to do it?
Melvin Ramon 18 Aug 08
Yea, the soup nazi was the first thing that came to mind… except DeMarco obviously looks like a nicer fellow. Will definitely go buy his place to pick a BBQ chicken pizza if I’m ever in the neighborhood.
GeeIWonderon 18 Aug 08
I’m sure if you asked restaurant business experts [...] But it’s pretty clear that DeMarco doesn’t give a shit.
I love the way how he deals with too much business/wait times is by raising the price. Classic.
Will definitely go buy his place to pick a BBQ chicken pizza if I’m ever in the neighborhood.
No offense, but I hope he makes you come back in one year. ;)
Anonymous Cowardon 18 Aug 08
Forget that, how about Dom actually taking orders in the order that people arrived, or letting his kids touch the pizzas? Locals always try to cut the line because they “know” Dom and get their pie in front of people who’ve been waiting. It’s unusual to visit Di Fara without witnessing at least one line fight about who was there first. He never remembers who was there first, and never steps in to calm the people down.
And how are his kids supposed to take over if he doesn’t let them touch the pizzas? They tried to open a place (DeMarco’s) in Manhattan and didn’t get any help from dad. Eventually, DeMarco’s closed down due to first, lack of business, and secondly, a tragic shooting incident where an employee was killed.
Plus, he’s getting old, too, and on occasion will burn your pie to a crisp. He broke his foot recently, and the entire place had to shut down while he recovered.
(I love his pizza but the experience could be greatly improved.)
Stephen Jenkinson 18 Aug 08
Ah, I love this so much. I’m a bit of a pizza fanatic, done the whole dough from scratch, grow my own basil thing… When I was in the Chi for SEED, I think I ate at about 5 different pizza places in the span of 3 days…
If you want to see somebody that takes pizza REALLY seriously, check out this guy. It borders on obsessive, but his passion is really attractive and you can’t help but admiring his craft:
Davidon 18 Aug 08
The author of E-Myth would cry if he saw this. It’s Sarah’s “All About Pies”. Thankfully, this chap loves what he does so it’s all good.
Ugur Gundogmuson 18 Aug 08
The world needs more DeMarcos.
Tedon 18 Aug 08
It is quite unfortunate that in our industry, the software industry, there’s this belief of shipping products ASAP even though it is not even near to 80% complete, it’s more like 75% complete.
We often heard people saying that “you won’t ship if you want to achieve perfection”.
Maybe this is why Open Source software shines?
Rabbiton 18 Aug 08
Thank you for posting some opposing material.
Based on the article and the comments thus far I picture a codger with a passion for cooking pizzas he likes. He’s indifferent towards anything unrelated to the creation of pizzas.
My “problem” with that is I doubt I’d go to a place that was that packed more than once. It’s not my style.
Based on what Anonymous Coward said about his unwillingness to teach his children, my first reaction was, “what’s wrong with this guy?”. After thinking about it, there’s nothing wrong. Maybe he doesn’t want to teach. Maybe he doesn’t care if his children make pizzas.
In short, he sounds somewhat selfish, which is a perfectly acceptable stance.
nexusprimeon 18 Aug 08
There’s a low key pizza outfit close to my place where the owner takes the same approach to making pizza.
Fresh, quality, complementary ingredients. He takes his time with it as well, it’s not “fast food” by any stretch (up to 20 minutes).
But with no reservations, it is the best pizza I have ever eaten – thick, juicy and laden with flavour. The only flaw is that I am tempted to go there too often.
Rhonda Michelleon 18 Aug 08
2 things really stand out – 1) DeMarco is straight from the “old country” and 2) he’s a farmer. Those 2 things alone speak volumes about his work ethic and values. It’s no secret that people who move to any country for a different, presumably better, lifestyle work their tail off because they have a different set of motivations than the people who were born in that country. They have an experience that cannot be fully understood by someone who has grown up in one country and known no other.
And the farmer thing – again, another group of people who look at work differently than most.
Sure, the place is far from perfect – but which place/environment is? There is plenty to learn and be inspired from in this story. Thanks for sharing Matt.
Garethon 18 Aug 08
I doubt he would make you a BBQ Chicken Pizza. That’s not real pizza. That’s crap from Pizza Hut.
The fact that this business is thriving despite over an hour wait just proves that in America, good pizza is very hard to find.
Chris Palmierion 18 Aug 08
What good is the most delicious, authentic pizza in the world if you’re miserable eating it?
Maybe I should hold my tongue until I’ve tasted Di Fara’s myself, but I can’t imagine how dirty tables, teary eyes from oven smoke and the nastiness of line fighting don’t make it into how you taste of the pie.
There are surely at least a few other pizza joints who get the pie right, why celebrate the guy who’s getting everything else wrong?
What’s the lesson we’re supposed to learn from him? Make great art and you too can p*ss on the your customers? That good stubbornness makes bad stubbornness charming and excusable?
Tomason 19 Aug 08
I don’t care how Italian it is, I’m not eating pizza off of dirty tables.
Marcotteon 19 Aug 08
Chris & Tomas – you’ve obviously never been to Naples. I’ve made many quick trips to Naples just to shove a few pizzas down my gullet. The two or three square miles in (and very slightly around) the city craft pizzas unequaled anywhere in the world. Why? First – the ingredients – Tomatoes grown in the volcanic soil around Vesuvius. Fior di latte produced right on their doorstep. Basil surprisingly unlike any you’ve had. Second – the wood burning oven. So scalding hot the pizza only takes two or three minutes tops. Third – the pizzaioli. Born and bred to do one thing. Years of repetitive labor appeasing a population of people who live solely to eat. The demand for quality and the “food-is-life” attitude is rivaled in very few places (San Sebastian perhaps). Every pizza maker in Naples is DeMarco. What makes him special is that he works so hard to find the ingredients and that he produces at a high quality without the benefit of collaboration or stringent demands of several million Neopolitan customers.
The utter disdain at finding crumbs on the table or a bit of wood smoke in the air – or better, the demand for a consistently-uniform-factory-produced pizza at a reasonable price is precisely the reason Pizza Huts thrive and artisans like DeMarco are so hard to find.
BTW – I haven’t been to Domenico DeMarco, but by the description, it sounds like a must-try next time I’m in NY.
Martinon 19 Aug 08
It takes so long because he works so slow and is not organised enough in the kitchen. Not because it takes so long to make a good pizza.
In Eupore, you get just as good a pizza without the long wait, the dirty room, dirty tables and the smoke. And you don’t have to pay that much.
And as others have said: He wants his children to continue his business but does not allow them to make the pizza? How is that supposed to work?
Kevinon 19 Aug 08
Am I the only one disturbed that he is importing his ingredients from italy ?
I mean isn’t there any closer farmer in the US who could provide him great tomatoes ?
Danon 19 Aug 08
Not a very scalable business model, but all in all the important thing is that he loves what he does, and he has the critical mass of regular customers.
I also frequent a caffeteria where the owner serves personally, he’s old, and it takes about 15 minutes to get your coffee.
Nickon 19 Aug 08
“Miserable” is not a word that even approaches my consciousness when I eat at Di Fara. A little grit is something I can deal with in the anticipation of something rare and fantastic.
The line is disorganized, but I’ve only seen one instance of “line fighting”, which was actually a Di Fara highlight. An inebriated man got angrier and angrier that he wasn’t able to cut the line, and the angrier he got, the less attention Dom paid him. It was clearly an all against one situation. The instigator vs. Dom and his dedicated mafia of fans. If anything got out of hand we would have had the drunk pinned down out on the street in an instant, and best of all, Dom knew it and never gave the guy a moment of his attention – he knew he had dozens of eyes watching his back and just stayed focused on the important stuff: pizza.
Given the choice between flat pizza with online ordering, clean tables, and efficient but impersonal service and Di Fara, there is no choice for me. Which goes to the point of the original post: Dom is catering to a subset of the market who share his beliefs and priorities, and he does so with a purity that begets not just customers but a real sense of love: His love for making the pies, his customers love for those pies, and his love for the customers, not just for keeping the lights on, but for appreciating the devotion that goes into doing things his way (and of course, the result).
Every time I go to Di Fara, I know that I’ll have to clean my own table and that it will be a 2-hour-plus effort, but I enjoy every minute of it. Forget ‘miserable’, it’s a blessing, and one that I’m consciously aware of every time I visit, to witness a rare modern example of real mastery – the kind of mastery that only comes from choosing a craft and devoting every day to its repetitive practice. Dom’s craft is not running a restaurant, it’s making pizzas. That’s enough for us and he knows it. I’d rather he not give a single brain cycle to figuring out how to keep the tables clean. Much better, in my assessment and apparently that of the rest of his mob of devotees, to instead focus that energy on improving the craft he loves.
Dom and his way are a treasure.
Chris Palmierion 19 Aug 08
Gareth: Cleanliness does not equal mass-commercialization or bad food (see Japan)
Marcotte: I have been to Naples. The pizza I had there was unforgettably good. But I do remember the tables and air being clean enough to enjoy the pie.
I’m in no way trying to pick apart what sounds like a successful business that pulls at the heart strings of its followers. But there is a risk of over-romanticizing flaws as somehow an integral part of some magic formula that made this place successful.
This kind of misplaced fascination inspires designers to knock off the “no-design” look of Craigslist, as if that made the site more useful, or musicians trying on the antics of Cat Power, as if that was what made her sing better.
Walt Kaniaon 19 Aug 08
I guess the thing is to decide if you get more jazzed by pleasing a lot of people (even if it’s with something you think is ugly or wrong or utterly uninteresting). . . or do you get a buzz from creating something that truly resonates with your sensibilities (and never mind whether 63 people like it, or 45 million.)
I think the former is where Twinkies came from.
Caseyon 20 Aug 08
His store holds a powerful position. He offers a quality product which offers a genuine taste of Italian pizza. His advantage is that his product is in demand and the fact that he would not change anything about his store only makes him more successful.
Sanat Gersappaon 20 Aug 08
Drat. That picture made me hungry. Wanna order pizza NOW.
Robon 20 Aug 08
Complete opposite of the “less is more” maxim:
Jon Mosson 20 Aug 08
Living in the NE of England, I am in the sad position to admit to you all, that there is not one single place like this in the surrounding area. I would love to have a place like this, perhaps burgers, perhaps sandwiches, anything would be great!
I will pay this place a visit next time I’m in NY – it cannot happen soon enough – I love that city.
manischewitzbaconon 20 Aug 08
i haven’t tasted this pizza, but i have been to naples and had similar. anyone in chicago looking for pizza that tastes as good as the ones in the video and picture look should check out spaccia napoli at sunnyside and ravenswood!
Claudioon 20 Aug 08
Well I prefer to make pizzas in stone ovens.
And to be sincere, I believe that art can leave together with organization and productivity.
Putting every topping ingredient in containers, would make easer to handle, produce and clean in the end of the day.
steon 21 Aug 08
I’m sure DeMarco’s pizza is perfectly fine (esp. if your next best alternative is Pizza Hut…), but no self-respecting pizza lover would eat something that was not cooked in a wood-burning oven. I guess I’m lucky to live in Italy, where you can get great pizza almost anywhere :-)
This discussion is closed.