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Di Fara: A Living Legend

13 Apr

I think I have alluded to Dom DeMarco’s pizzeria a few times throughout this blog without ever scratching the surface. This then is it.

I finally made the journey out to Midwood, it took about 40 minutes, first on foot, then by train. It was a nasty grey day but on a whim I decided that it was as good as any other. Midwood is very much suburbia, feeling far from anywhere resembling the NY everyone pictures. It looked a lot like Golders Green in London, urban scrawl graffiti over every bit of railway siding, plenty of semi-detached housing with driveways and garages, religious jews in their funny outfits and a high street full of double parked cars and the heavy usage of horns. In mitigation it was Friday just before all the jewish businesses were closing and the people were scrambling to get their provisions in before the sabbath.

The point of all this is to frame the pull that Di Fara has. It is a long way from the city with little reason for an outsider to visit. However, other than a police patrolman and some local mechanics, every other person in the joint seemed to be in the neighbourhood just for the pizza. One woman was collecting a pizza for her boyfriend in New Jersey, she was passing so had to stop in, “it would be worth it even for cold pizza”.  I picked up some definite Australian accents, and a fella who judging by his girth was a regular but still very much in awe of his pizza.

They were all here for the same reason, anytime you Google New York’s Ten Best Pizzas you will see Di Fara. In my opinion some of the lists have him in quite bad company (don’t ever go to Lombardi’s or Grimaldi’s despite what any guide may say) but he has to be a genuine contender. As always you have to suspend some of the pre-conceptions of visiting the ‘best pizzeria in NY’. This is not Per Se your meal will not be the result of hundreds of chef hours preparing complicated sauces and foams, but it is still a real labour of love.

DeMarco makes every pizza himself and for a 75-year-old he is pretty sprightly. But that translates to a 40 minute wait for 2 slices of pizza on a quiet rainy Friday. Part of the reason is that at 75 he is not as fast on his feet as he once was. In fact this had been one of my fears that having put off this pilgrimage off for so long I was in danger of missing out should the old mans health begin to suffer. Fortunately he seemed in rude health, taking his time, but very deliberate about all his actions. Its his attention to detail that makes the pizza what it is. Making every one from scratch is a lot of work for one person, DeMarco himself finishes every pizza with scissor cut basil and extra parmesan which is periodically grated by his daughter.

Here in lies the success of this very ordinary looking pizzeria. Forty years ago there would have been many dedicated pizza men like Dom, keeping the business in the family and ensuring high standards were being met by being there for every pizza. Now many of the New York style pizza joints are anonymously owned or with priorities solely on profit rather than quality. Di Fara has remained a rock in the shifting sands and hence he stands out.

So the question I have been waiting to answer; Is this really the best pizza in New York?

No, but it is the best place you could go if you wanted a slice of true NY style pizza. The pizza genre has many different styles from classic Neapolitan, Chicago deep dish, New Haven super thin, grilled and I am sure many others. So the fairest I think you can say is that this is the best NY style pizza in New York. For the best pizza in NYC I would have to recommend the Neapolitan style pies at Motorino.

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Pizza Dough as inspired by Slice

4 Apr

Over the last few months I have tried various methods of making pizza at home. I have played around with different types of dough, sauce and cooking techniques. I am still far from reaching perfection and I have been only concerning myself with the basic elements of dough and sauce.

Dough: The pizza dough recipe I offered in the post Pizza 101 is an excellent starting point. It is the recipe I learnt in baking class and produces great crust without too much effort or forward planning, it can be easily frozen and pulled out whenever needed.

The next step though was to create a sourdough pizza base which adds several dimensions in taste and texture. The naturally occurring yeasts and slow fermentation of the dough allows for a greater depth in flavour and a better crust texture.  Sadly I do not yet have my own perfected sourdough pizza recipe, however I have achieved very reasonable results with the method below.

200g sourdough starter (40%) Recipe and method of how to make starter see sourdough post

325 g water(65%)

500g all purpose flour (100%)

1.5 teaspoon fine sea salt (2%)

Once you have your dough you can allow it time to develop. There is nothing to stop you kneading and proofing your dough ready for baking that same day, however, improved results can be seen with some patience. By allowing the dough to cold ferment over several days you will see benefits in both flavour and texture taking the finished product closer to something you might expect from a wood fired pizzeria.

Once the ingredients are fully mixed allow to rest for 10 minutes, this will allow full hydration and help develop the strength of the dough. Knead for a short time, try 12 quick turns. If you were to imagine the picture as knead 1 you would then turn the piece of dough 90 degrees on the bench and repeat the action by picking up the point furthest from you and folding it towards you, turn on 90 degrees and repeat. Once again cover the dough and leave for 15 minutes. Repeat the kneading process 3 times with 10 min rest in-between. Your dough is now ready to go into the fridge for at least 48 hours.

Over this time it will double in size and remain in good condition for up to 6 days in the fridge. There will be subtle changes to the structure of the dough most easily seen once baked. Before baking you will need to remove as much dough as you need and shape it into a small ball and allow it to rest covered at room temperature for 2 hours. You will then be ready to stretch your base. For instructions see Pizza 101

Some background reading on homemade pizza making at the Slice blog led me to a good all round tomato sauce.

2x 400g whole peeled tomato cans (go for San Marzano if you can)

1x tblsp extra virgin olive oil

1x tblsp unsalted butter (optional)

2-3 x garlic cloves mashed or grated fine

1/2x tsp dried oregano

pinch of dried chilli flakes

1 x tsp fine salt

1x onion peeled and cut in half

1x tsp sugar

Puree the tomatoes using a food mill or processor. Heat the oil and butter with garlic, oregano, chili flakes and salt for a few minutes, stir regularly and do not allow garlic to burn. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to simmer, turn the heat down to its lowest setting and reduce the sauce by half (approx 1 hr) check for seasoning and allow to cool before refridgerating. (Store for 1 week or freeze).

The new cooking technique I have been using came from the same source. As author himself points out in his post it seems rather obvious yet it took several goes before it became obvious.

The most common method is to use a simple pizza stone and give it a long heating period at the highest temperature your oven will go to. This gives the base enough time to brown while allowing the dough and toppings to fully bake. The downsides to this method are a very hot apartment (simply not viable in Summer in NY), a long cooking time for the pizza which can be a problem serving multiple guests and a lack of puff/char in your crust.

The alternative which will solve all these problems is to use a combination of your broiler (grill) and the gas stove top. The secret is all in the different transference of heat in cooking techniques. (For more info see the Slice blog post….) Simply enough start your pizza under the grill, the heat from above will give the dough a good oven spring allowing it puff up quickly while imparting good colour/charring. Once everything on top is cooked as you like, transfer to the gas stove to give the base its crisp texture and colouring.

You should preheat your grill and your pan on the stove top. Once the dough is flattened out to the size of your pan, carefully drop in and begin to top. Once the pizza is assembled place as close to the grill as you can. Once the edges of the pizza have puffed up sufficiently (2 minutes approx) you can remove and place back on the stove top to cook the base.  After a couple of minutes you should be able to lift the pizza to see underneath, once you have some colour and are happy that it is cooked through you are ready to serve.

The final result is as  close to a wood fired pizza as is possible without the oven. You should have a slightly charred and chewy base, with very puffy and slightly blackened crust.

Roberta’s

21 Dec

In the ever raging battle of Burgers Vs Pizza beef is way ahead. Pizza’s have been woefully under represented in this blog up until now so I have to make a mad dash to even things up in the next two weeks.

I do not think Di Fara, the legend of New York pizza is going to make it on this trip, the logistics are just all wrong and I cannot reconcile the costs/benefit analysis in the biting cold….. For some reason I have not made it to Franny’s yet, Donatella’s and Paulie Gee’s are not exciting me right now so this leaves only Roberta’s, a place I have heard lots about but not ventured to before now.

Yes, the picture above really is the front entrance to the restaurant. I think we have all seen public toilets that are better maintained, however exiting the subway station told me all I needed to know about the area. (I have found in NY the state of the subway station tells you a lot about the area you are in. Much like The London Underground different stations are at different levels of decay, however in NY they generally start at a lower point so the bad ones really are quite shitty) Roberta’s is on the border between NE Williamsburg and Bushwick, it’s another classic tale of a good neighbourhood gone bad as soon as the major employer (Breweries) leave town.

Back to Roberta’s, in fairness to the place it never makes out to be anything other than it is; a ramshackle place devoted to good food, good beer and good times. You can tell there was no business plan, no grand scheme, just a lot of love and a great deal of hard work to achieve what they have.

While it is certainly better on the inside than the outside there are no interior designer touches here, just things placed where they are needed and random extras thrown in to add flavour to the place.

To the food: There are two distinct kitchens here, one is right up front dominated by the bright red pizza oven and the other tucked away at the back dealing with all the other food. It seems to work quite well although it must add to the staff cost, I counted at least 7 kitchen staff on a quiet lunch.

The pizza was very good, not in Motorino’s league, but still a very good pizza. The dough was quite dry and the mozzarella just a little too white for my liking, (someone in NY decided mozzarella should be as white as a Hollywood wannabe’s smile so there is a tendency to add chemical whitening agents to the cheese), although I do not think that this is the case here. On the plus side a very good sauce and excellent Sopressata Piccante. I enviously watched as the table next to mine tucked into the Fried chicken special, but as I was eating alone today I had to settle for just pizza. Looking at the menu this place offers a whole lot more and I would love to go back with a larger party to sample the rest of the food.

It rates as a really good pizza option, but with much more besides. They are soon to start baking their own bread out of an oven built into a shipping container and last weekend hosted their own Beerfest. Having walked around the neighbourhood a little it seems there is not too much in the way of competition yet, but I am sure this will not last too long, after all one good joint always brings another.

After I ate I walked and got a little trigger happy with the camera….so much graffiti to enjoy…..

Lucali’s and the great pizza debate…..

3 Dec

Lucali’s is an enigma to me. The restaurant serves good pizza in a ‘romantic’ (that means candlelit and dark) setting, but is quite expensive and difficult to get a table at.

Straightforward so far, the problem comes if you start reading all the reviews of the place. Lucali’s has been said by many to be one of the best in NYC, and even by some as in the top 5 of the whole country. This is pretty big talk for a place that believes pizza belongs to them. ‘While the Neapolitans may have invented/perfected it, we care far more about it and hence by right believe we should be its master and judge.‘ This seems fair enough, certainly in NY pizza is an obsession and there are a lot of people who will happily spend hours arguing for their shout as best pizza joint.

It comes down to who you believe. Every professional critic that I can find gives Lucali’s a very positive review, and I tend to agree, as I said at the start it is good pizza. However herein lies the problem. The perception maybe that a professional critic some how has an elevated palette and knows something we do not. Well maybe they do when it comes to 3 star food. Not because of any innate ability, lets face it most restaurant critics are just journalists who were offered the gig of free meals and were not foolish enough to turn it down, but because as a critic they get to eat at every top place and hence through simple repetition get the knowledge to compare one top meal from another. The same cannot be said for pizza, we have all had plenty of opportunity to eat it so I believe there is little need to rely upon a professional review.

So, if your eating pizza forget the reviews in Time Out, NY Magazine or The Times and just head straight for the comments posted on Yelp, Qype or any other online reviews, they will tell you all you need to know. The truth about Lucali’s is that it’s a good neighbourhood restaurant. The pizza is tasty, a little too expensive and definitely overhyped, but if you can get a table without too much hassle you are guaranteed a decent meal.

NB. If you are looking for good info on Pizza check out Slice, its a website devoted to pizza and if anyone is going to give you good advice on where to eat pizza its this site.

I will also be throwing in my 2 cents with a guide to NY’s top pizza, however first I need to get to the legendary Di Fara before I can pass judgement.

Have to also mention Lucali’s is Jay Z favourite pizza joint too, i know because the first time i went he sat right behind me, i was lucky……these poor people were kicked out to make room for J and Beyonce!!! This is their subsequent vent on a review website.

“It was actually the rudest thing that’s ever happened to me in a restaurant in New York. He asked us to eat as fast as possible and leave…as he put down our entrees! He did this 1/2 hour before they showed up, so he knew they were coming. When we expressed that it’s kind of rude to put down an entree and tell your diner to eat and leave as quickly as possible (especially because other tables had been there longer), he said “Something came up! I’ve got a situation! I need this table. I’ll pay for your dinner.” Thanks! We left into the cold night raging about our ruined birthday dinner. I couldn’t tell if it was sexist because we were three girls and he thought we’d meekly trot off, or he just wanted our table because it was right next to his. But the whole thing was insane.”

PIZZA 101

14 Nov

The week has all been leading up to one thing for me, Pizza.

Although i did have a short stint as a Pizzaiolo back in 2005, i never learnt how to make the pizza dough, only the stretching, topping and cooking, so this was my chance to complete the circle. I will say now that the last week has been one of the most enjoyable learning experiences of my life. Apart from some first day nerves when i began to panic that my teacher may be some crazed kitchen animal who would take exception to my trainers and beard, (both of which were expressly forbidden in the handout i was given at induction) the week has been fantastic. Everyone was friendly we had a great teacher and i am left with the feeling that i have a real grasp on the basics of bread baking, oh and a full freezer and a really large belly!

Pizza is one of those universal things, it combines all the important food groups, bread, vegetables, dairy and preferably some meat too. Hence i believe it deserves a full explanation.

Please see my step by step guide to making pizza.

1.Gather your ingredients, 500g strong white flour, 340g cold water, 10g salt and 5g fresh yeast

2. Add the fresh yeast and salt to the water and begin to dissolve (it does not have to fully dissolve just enough to help the process).  Then add to the bowl of flour.

3. Using your hands, or if you have a dough scraper begin to slowly mix all the ingredients together. The idea is to incorporate all the flour and water together so that it begins to form a messy ball. The best method is to slowly fold the ingredients together from the outside in, in a circular motion, it helps if you keep moving the bowl as you go.

4. Once it has come together into the sticky ball seen above it is time to rest. Cover and leave for around 45 minutes.

5. After the dough has rested it is time to begin kneading. This is a more gentle process than i imagined. We are essentially folding and rotating the dough until it becomes stronger and ‘springy’ to the touch. The dough will be sticky so put some flour on the work top and your hands and gently fold the dough in half, rotate 90 degrees and fold again, keep repeating this process until you reach the desired consistency (springy). It should be approx a 5 minute process. It is important not to over work the dough, however a longer resting period after this process will help remedy over worked dough.

6. At this point you have a choice you can either ferment the dough for one hour at room temp and then refrigerate overnight, or leave it out at room temp for 3 hours, or even freeze it. (you could then defrost overnight allowing it to ferment at the same time) The longer the dough ferments the more flavour and structure it can develop. Beware you can over-ferment, leaving the dough unworkable. If it is a very warm room/day perhaps better to leave for longer in the fridge or shorter period at room temp.

Either way wrap the dough and put to one side.

*SEE POINT 9 RE: OVEN

7. Once the dough is fermented you can begin to divide and shape the dough ready for stretching and topping. First divide the dough into the desired size. This recipe makes at least 3 12″ pizzas but you can play around with sizes depending on your oven/pizza stone. To give you an idea 150g  dough stretches to a approx 9″ thin crust pizza, the larger the pizza the harder it is to handle so smaller is probably best until you master getting it into the oven.

Flouring the bench take your weighed dough and pinch a corner and fold into the centre (this is not an exact science the idea is to pre shape the dough into a ball to help in the final process), turn the dough  90 degrees and fold corner into the middle repeat until you have gone a full 360. Then cupping your hands drag the dough towards you, turn and repeat a total of 4 times. The dough should now have formed itself into a mini ball, (the underside will not be perfectly smooth).

8. One more rest for 30 minutes and it is ready to be stretched, topped and cooked. The resting is an important part as it allows the dough to regain its lightness after each handling.

9. Well before you are ready to start stretching your dough you should have your oven cranked up to full heat, ideally with a pizza stone inside. If not you can use bricks or a slab of marble/granite, just beware it is liable to crack due to the heat! Anything that you can put in your oven to help retain heat is also useful as pizza is best cooked at as higher temp as possible. If you have a cast iron pan just stick it in the bottom of the oven, the heat it retains will help counter act what you lose when you open the oven door to slide the pizza in. An oven thermometer is also useful as oven thermostats tend to be inaccurate.

At this stage all your ingredients should be lined up and ready to go.

If you are using fresh mozzarella, buffalo, or cows, be sure to dry it on some paper towels first, the large amount of moisture they contain will make the pizza soggy.

Also if you are putting fresh basil on your pizza, either bury it under the cheese or better still add after the pizza is out of the oven.

Do not over sauce the pizza as this well increase the chance of it sticking to you board or oven and ripping leaving you pizzaless.

10. I did record a video of this but am having trouble importing so for now you will have to make do with an explanation.

You can drop a piece of dough into some flour, remove and place on your bench. using your fingertip gently mark a crust all the way round the edge.

You then need to pick the dough up and rest it on your knuckles and begin to stretch, as you rotate the dough on you knuckles gravity should begin to help and the dough will start to stretch as in the picture, remember depending how much dough you portioned will govern the size of the pizza, do not try to stretch too thin.

once you have the size of dough you want place onto a well floured surface ready to slide into the oven. Ideally a pizza peel, but you can use a wooden board or even the bottom of a baking tray. The thinner the edge the easier to get in your oven.

The key here is a well floured peel and speed. If your pizza base begins to stick you can try to get more flour underneath but it becomes very tricky once it starts to stick. A quick flick on you peel will tell you if it is stuck or not, the whole pizza should be free to move. Lightly add sauce and any toppings, again be careful a spot of spilt sauce on the peel in the wrong place will spell disaster. Once your are loaded up and sure your pizza is free to slide off it’s over to the oven.

You need a quick push-pull motion to deposit the pie into the oven, and your there!

As you can see, there is very little difference between the pizza made in class and the one at home. The charring seen on the crust of the class pizza is only achieved at 500F plus, but the texture of my home pizza was excellent. Very crispy crust with good rise and as you can see the stone really helps colour and flavour the base.

Have fun trying at home and send me pictures of your results…….

Pizza doh

15 Oct

Motorino I love you…….This really was a trip I was looking forward to well before I touched down in NYC.

Anyone who knows me will know that while I profess a love for food it really only extends as far as the junk end of the spectrum. I can appreciate the skills of a Michelin chef and profess that some of my favourite places to eat in London are fancy, but the truth is nothing makes me happier than a great pizza or burger.

So all my previous visits to this great city have been based around searching for the best junk money can buy (oh yea and seeing my lovely girlfriend),  and trust me some of these places are not cheap. Motorino is the brain child of Mathieu Palombino, a man after my own heart, he has worked in some of the cities top restaurants even earning a Michelin star at his last job. Just think all that chef know how channeled into three basic ingredients, bread, tomato and cheese. Well Motorino truly delivers, I think my first visit was one of those rare experiences where you feel they’ve just nailed it… Perfectly charred crust, sweet tomato and proper fior di latte (cows milk mozzarella), this allied with some spicy sopressetto and pizza heaven….As good as it gets.

My return visit was of similar high standards, the oven at its  centre as you would expect draws you in and the pizza does the rest. But not only do you know you are going to be fed well it then seems over generous to offer a lunch special which includes pizza and a simple green salad all for $11.

Ok so the salad is nothing to get excited about,  and it seems odd that the simple lemon dressing they give you on the side can be so badly imbalanced that even a lemon lover like me wishes they would tone it down a bit. The only other criticism I could offer is a slightly over eager waiting staff, I lost count of the number of times I was asked if everything was ok, a little annoying but I can put this down to the lack of customers at 2.30 pm on a Wednesday.

All this said I am  grateful that the pizza lives up to the billing “the best I’ve ever had” and I’ve had a lot, all over the world.

Once I paid the bill and worked out the correct level to tip….a constant source of annoyance for me which I will return to, I headed off in search of the Brooklyn Kitchen.

Very generoulsy when I left  melroseandmorgan.com my home for 5 years I was given a voucher for this place so I thought I would go and investigate since it was close by. Its a cook shop, cook school and butchers all housed in an old warehouse just by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE). Its a fantastic space full of all the toys an aspiring chef could want. It also includes some basic ingredients, pulses, grains etc as well as some special locally sourced dairy and vegetables. This alongside a serious meat counter (The Meat Hook) makes this a food lovers paradise.

I gleefully wondered around forming ideas of what I could spend my vouchers on resisting buying on impulse. I now have an idea of the essentials I will need so look forward to returning.

I also just discovered that the McClures are doing a pickling class next Monday 25th October so I have booked myself on that. These guys are for me the king of picklers and I have built up quite a addiction to their garlic dill spears….so here is to hoping I can pick up some tips and save myself some cash in the long run because at 10 bucks ago I am gonna be broke fast…..