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Brooklyn man giant among pizza makers

Every day except Mondays, Di Fara Pizza teems with people waiting for a pie or a slice. Di Fara is home to 71-year-old Domenico De Marco, perhaps the greatest pizza maker in a city obsessed with the age-old Italian dish.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Every day except Mondays, Di Fara Pizza teems with people waiting for a pie or a slice.

If they're very lucky, it arrives in a matter of minutes. If they're not, it might be two hours. Nobody really minds.

"I don't care," says Kirill Simenchik, a 21-year-old student who trekked from Coney Island to this Brooklyn pizza outpost. Folks like Simenchik know this is not just some ordinary pizza joint.

No, Di Fara is home to 71-year-old Domenico De Marco, perhaps the greatest pizza maker in a city obsessed with the age-old Italian dish.

"Dom is one of the giants on the New York pizza scene, and he's become sort of a standard that newer, younger pizza-makers try to hit," says Adam Kuban, who runs a popular Web site called Slice, which tracks all things pizza.

De Marco's pizza has turned him into something of a celebrity. His creations are lauded in the media; his 2005 hospitalization for a foot infection was chronicled on blogs, as was a minor run-in with the health department.

And it's not your average pizza shop that can earn a screaming tabloid headline in New York _ "A Lot of Dough!" _ just for raising its prices.

The attention bewilders the humble and laconic De Marco, who once refused to buy pizza boxes because they were printed with: "You've tried all the rest now try the best." De Marco considered this bragging and unseemly.

"It's amazing," he says in a thick Italian accent. "Makes me feel very good. Makes me proud."

De Marco hasn't always been worshipped among pizza aficionados and foodies. For years, he went unnoticed. He was just another hardworking pizzaiolo _ one of scores in New York.

He got his start in 1959 after immigrating to America with his younger brother, Giovanni. They came from Caserta, Italy, which sits just north of Napoli, a city famous for its strict pizza tradition.

He worked at another pizzeria in Brooklyn for about year before deciding to open his own shop with his brother and a man named Franco Farino.

It was called "Little Venice." And only De Marco handled the pizzas.

"I believe only one guy should make the pizza," he says.

De Marco has good and bad memories of this place. He met his wife Margaret there. She would come in for lunch and sit by herself. On Thanksgiving 1960, he got up the gumption to ask her out. She agreed and they married five years later.

But while De Marco's love life took off, business did not. He once got robbed at gunpoint and his store was repeatedly vandalized. "I had a lot of bad experiences over there," De Marco recalled. "I had enough."

De Marco sold the business for $6,000 in 1965 and found a spot _ an old fruit store _ in Midwood, a primarily Jewish neighborhood. He named the new shop Di Fara, combining his name with Farino's.

He plowed $10,000 into Di Fara and started selling slices for 20 cents and pizzas for a $1.

But De Marco was never satisfied with the pizza. He was always tinkering with the recipe, deciding to make his own tomato sauce rather than use canned.

Di Fara had its fans, mostly people from Brooklyn. It was hardly a sensation.

"I would say we were struggling," says De Marco's daughter, Margaret Mieles, 37, who continues to work at the pizza parlor with her sister and two brothers.

Then the number of customers gradually increased. Jim Leff, who founded, got a tip about Di Fara and wrote about it in his 1998 book, "The Eclectic Gourmet Guide to Greater New York City," and then again on Chowhound.

In his book, Leff called De Marco's sauce "a restrained, low profile masterpiece of optimal acidity and spicing (bolstered by a goodly shake of black pepper). Like everything here it's delicious in a magically old-fashioned way."

Mieles, one of De Marco's seven children, didn't think much of the publicity.

"You would think it would die out?" she says.

It didn't. Since Leff's tip, business has increased 300 percent. "We forgot all the bad times," she says.

To keep pace, De Marco, a diabetic, is on his feet about 12 hours a day with the help of morning and afternoon espressos. And he still is the only one to make the pizza, though concedes his two sons make decent pizzas.

"They can make the second best pizza in New York," Mieles says.

On a good day, De Marco can make 150 pizzas with his powerful, meaty hands, using the same Baker's Pride oven he bought when he first opened. And he doesn't use a peel to pull them from the oven. His hands are fine.

"You look at the guy, you'd think he was born to make pizza," Scott Kagan, 24, of Manhattan, said recently as he devoured a pie.

Mieles says the family is hounded by investors urging them to launch a frozen food line touting the Di Fara name.

"Never," De Marco says. "There's no money in the world."

At some point, De Marco perfected his pizzas. He now uses flour from Italy and three types of mozzarella cheese. The pizzas bake for a few minutes at about 800 F, then De Marco adds the Parmigiano-Reggiano and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Fresh basil from Israel is the final flourish.

"Three things make Dom's pizza so good," Kuban says. "The combination of cheeses he uses, the attention he gives each pizza and the fact that he doesn't trust anyone else to do it, and the build-up you get after the long wait in line."