The Q train clicks and groans across the Manhattan Bridge, half-full of passengers on their way to Brooklyn on a Saturday afternoon, everyone’s eyes choosing a spot on the floor or in a book or on their phones. I sit in a plastic seat, wondering if a single slice of pizza is worth a 45-minute train ride each way.
When I walk into Di Fara Pizza, four teenage girls are standing at the counter. They order a slice of sausage pizza, and the guy behind the counter says, “That’s $6.”
One of the girls gasps incredulously, “Six dollars for a slice of pizza?” The guy confirms yes, five dollars for a slice and a dollar for each topping. And it’ll be 25 minutes.
The girl whirls around dramatically and they all shuffle out of the restaurant. No one’s offended; the guy moves on from them to me without hesitation. I order a slice of cheese pizza, pay $5, and have 25 minutes to kill.
The teenage girls walked into this restaurant looking for a slice of pizza, probably any decent slice of pizza. I walked in because this pizza, the $5, 25-minute slice, was named No. 1 of the 100 best pizzas in America a couple weeks ago and I happened to see the article online.
I step outside, poke my camera through the take-out window and shoot a few photos of the founder and owner, 79-year-old Domenico DeMarco, who makes every pizza by hand. He glances up at my camera exactly once, accustomed to being interviewed and followed around and having his pizza called “the best in New York” by everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Zagats.
A guy comes up behind me on the sidewalk and says, “Are you waiting for a slice?” I say yes, 25 minutes, they said. The guy looks over my shoulder inside and says, “They should let the young guy make the pizza. He would be faster.” And then he walks away.
Exactly 14 minutes after I ordered, my slice is ready. I lean against the wall on 15th Street and try to slowly eat the pizza, wishing I was the type of person to be able to curate adjectives so I can tell people all about it and I can’t, really. The sauce is subtle but flavorful, the cheese balancing out the sauce but not distracting, and the crust perfectly browned, like you wish every slice of toast that pops out of your toaster would be. It’s a good pizza slice, probably one of the best I’ve ever had.
Is it the best? People who know way more than I do about food say so, so it must be, right? On technical merits, I would have to say it’s worthy. Plus I just like the story of a 79-year-old man taking a long time to make a slice of pizza and not caring if anyone thinks it takes too long or costs too much. Is it the best pizza I’ve ever had?
But part of me wonders if there’s really that much distance between the “best” slice of pizza in America, and, say, the 25th best or the 50th best. A bigger part of me doesn’t care at all, because I just wanted to try the pizza, and see Mr. DeMarco do his thing in person. A 45-minute train ride each way is a small price to pay when you live 1,600 miles away from New York, like I do. I could be waiting in a crowd of people at the MOMA for my turn to take a selfie with The Persistence of Memory, but today I chose this. Obsessing over food is its own sort of rewarding folly, and to me, the search for food experiences is one of the best parts of travel.
Some people would say this is the best pizza in New York, and some would probably disagree. Some people would argue that Chicago style deep-dish pizza is better than New York-style, or New Haven-style pizza is better than both. My friend Syd, a lifelong pizza enthusiast, said to me one time, “Why should we discriminate? It’s all pizza.” And I agree with Syd. I like to eat pizza way more than I like to argue with people and/or worry about semantics, by a factor of at least 1,000. So if someone says it’s the best, it becomes a sort of pizza-shaped magnet for me.
I have flown thousands of miles and hiked for grueling hours just to get to a big rock face and spend a day climbing it, and however ridiculous that might sound to someone who doesn’t climb, it was just as fun as hunting down a great noodle place in a city I don’t live in—or a donut, or a bowl of curry, or a pizza slice. Maybe you’ve spent a few thousand dollars on a trip to the Super Bowl or the Olympics to watch the greatest athletes in the world perform. I’m here watching a guy who’s about to turn 80 take some dough, sauce, and cheese, stick it in a 50-year-old, 900-degree oven, and take my money for it, even if there isn’t a place to sit, or a working restroom in the building.
Is it the best pizza in America? Maybe it is. I can’t say I’m qualified to judge, but I can say it certainly tastes like DeMarco puts his heart into each pizza he puts his hands on. What’s that worth? Two $2.75 45-minute train rides on the Q train and two hours of my short visit to New York? Hey, everybody’s gotta have a dream. And my dream is pizza.
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