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Great American Bites: Best pizza in New York? DiFara stakes a claim

DiFara is everything a New York pizzeria should be, a neighborhood establishment that has been on the same block for over 40 years, owned by the same man, Domenico DeMarco. DiFara is among the last of a dying breed, with New York increasingly the province of the fast-food chain pizzerias once completely unknown here, and at the higher end, endless brick oven faux Neapolitan “gourmet” pizzerias. DiFara is the real deal, an immigrant Italian holdout on a corner in a very heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood (where even the Dunkin Donuts down the block is certified Kosher). This means that on Saturdays, DiFara’s is the only restaurant open, and since the city shuts parking meters here, free spaces abound.

There is usually a line outside when the metal gates open at roughly noon. The schedule is imprecise, since DeMarco is an artist who opens when he is ready, and closes when he runs out of pizza, often hours before the posted 10 p.m.closing time. Inside, the place is quite humble, with a counter down the left side where you order, behind which sits the oven, which DeMarco mans all day. He has made every pizza served here, and continues to do so, assisted in prepping and order taking by one of his children. I was somewhat horrified to discover that a spin-off location is about to open in Las Vegas, which does not bode well considering he won’t trust his own family to make pizzas in front of him!

But Vegas or no, this is a true classic where orders are scrawled on well-used legal pads and only cash is accepted. Unlike modern gussied-up pizza places, but very much in the local tradition, DiFara also sells by the slice. There are half a dozen tables, and that’s it, other than the framed awards on the wall. After all, DiFara is perennially the city’s highest rated pizzeria in the Zagat Restaurant Survey, and has been repeatedly proclaimed New York’s best pizza. Guess what? It’s true.

Reason to visit:  Round pie, square pie, artichokes.

The food:  I grew up in New York reared on New York-style pizza, which I have eaten in all five boroughs at places big and small, famous and unknown. I can say with conviction that DiFara’s pizza is simply the best of its breed. New York-style pizza is unique because it has a thin crust, but sturdy enough to support the slice held in one hand, crispy yet still flexible enough to fold without shattering. It has a pronounced outer crust that is raised and airy, and pies tend to be large. There is a second style that is also uniquely New York, the Sicilian (you won’t find it in Sicily), a rectangular sheet pie with much thicker, bread-like crust and corners. DiFara makes the very best of both types. When it comes to classic New York-style pizza, DiFara is not about reinventing the wheel, it is the wheel.

DeMarco came to New York from Italy, and thanks to his insistence on quality ingredients, was importing tomatoes from his birthplace and using real buffalo mozzarella long before such emphasis became fashionable. Self-taught, he does not adhere to Neapolitan or Big Apple traditions, and through experimentation chose a unique three-cheese blend of fresh buffalo mozzarella, fior di latte, and lots of parmigiano reggiano, coarsely grated in front of customers on a regular basis. In another unique touch, he drizzles extra virgin olive oil over the pizzas just before putting them into the oven, and when they are ready, he cuts fresh basil over each with scissors, from bunches he grows on his windowsill. For the Sicilian, which he calls “square pies,” he pre-bakes the thicker crusts partway and unlike almost all such pizzas, the ingredients adhere rather than pulling apart in layers when you try to take a bite.

Because the dough is airy and not as thick or heavy as most Sicilian, and the delicious cheese and homemade sauce stay on, it is the best of this style I have ever tried. But the round is even better. It’s the neighborhood pizza once common in New York on steroids: better, fresher, and bursting with taste. The tomatoes come through, the cheeses come through, the basil cut only seconds ago comes through, and these are all atop a perfect New York-style crust. It is a symphony of taste and texture, the very model of New York pizza. It should be in a museum.

The only thing that could get better than this plain pizza is toppings, and they excel. The meatballs are tender and tasty, made from scratch with care, not a mere topping afterthought. The same is true for his signature topping, artichokes, a Roman specialty that is rarely done well. At DiFara, artichokes understandably have a loyal following. But then again so does everything, since this is the best New York-style pizza you can eat.

What regulars say:  “I’ll be back in 45,” said the woman in front of me in line, since those in-the-know order, leave, come back, and take their pizzas with them rather than hoping against hope for a seat.

Pilgrimage-worthy?:  Yes – the best New York-style pizza in New York City.

Rating:  OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)

Price:  $-$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)

Details:  Original, 1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn; 718-258-1367; http://www.difara.com/

Read previous columns

Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a BBQ contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter,@TravelFoodGuy, and if there’s a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail attravel@usatoday.com.

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