I first saw Domenico DeMarco in action more than 20 years ago, although if you ever saw him at work you know that there was hardly any action to see unless you watched him very closely.
Over the years he had organized his mise en place so compactly, eliminated extraneous movements so ruthlessly, that it could seem, to the untrained eye, that he simply bowed over a circle of raw dough and waited while it assembled itself into a pizza.
Mr. DeMarco has died at age 85, his daughter Margie DeMarco Mieles announced Thursday in a Facebook post. Originally from the Italian province of Caserta, he began making pies at Di Fara Pizza in Midwood, Brooklyn, in 1965.
He worked efficiently. That’s not the same as saying he worked quickly. Even in the years before Mr. DeMarco became something of a national folk hero and the lines on weekends would stretch on to the sidewalk outside his shop on Avenue J, getting hot food out of his kitchen took a while.
This was true no matter what you ordered. Eventually the demand for pizza pushed virtually everything else off the menu, but at that time you could still get an astonishing meatball sub, or spaghetti with fresh clams, or baked manicotti. That first time, I had meant to try a representative sample of the menu. Then I saw a handwritten sign — on a paper plate taped to the wall, if I remember correctly — that said “baby artichoke pizza,” and suddenly all I wanted was baby artichoke pizza. A whole one.
That really took a while. Mr. DeMarco sautéed what struck me as enough artichokes for four large pies and then spread them over the one that was going to be mine, all mine. Waiting for it to come out of the gas oven was one of the most thrilling moments of my eating life, and it was no less thrilling as the moment stretched to 30 minutes and kept stretching toward a full hour.
That day, I began to seen Mr. DeMarco as a living link between the cooking of Southern Italy, where he was born in 1936, and New York City’s corner-slice culture.
Pizza snobs 20 years ago thought it was self-evident that the only worthwhile pizza was the kind made by Neapolitan-style brick-oven pizzerias like Totonno’s and Lombardi’s, which could trace their culinary lineage straight back to Naples. It was less clear that the greasily reliable New York slice, baked at lower heat in gas ovens and consumed on the sidewalk by guys like Tony Manero, belonged to any culinary tradition at all.
Today the gas-oven slice is an object of serious study and appreciation. Shops like Scarr’s, Upside and Mama’s Too have re-examined the style and offered subtle, respectful improvements. And it all started at Di Fara.
You couldn’t miss the integrity of Mr. DeMarco’s cooking, even though he did it standing still on a patch of kitchen floor no bigger than a bathmat. There was his sauce, both thicker and thinner than other slice shops’; it would be mostly absorbed into the dough, but would leave behind a few meaty red shreds of pulp.
There were the cheeses, plural, which he would grate directly over the tomatoes in some ideal ratio that only he knew. There was the live basil he snipped to order over the finished pies or slices. I never believed it all came from the single, scrawny potted plant growing in the window, but there are people who will wear they once saw Dom himself clip off a branch. Before a second location was opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it was said that no one else was allowed to make a pizza at Di Fara.
Watching him make a pie forced you to change your view of slice-joint pizzerias in general. A lot of them aren’t very good, it’s true. But the gas ovens aren’t to blame. If Mr. DeMarco could use a gas oven to bake pizza that made you see the sun glinting off the Bay of Naples, then so could other cooks. They probably wouldn’t equal Mr. DeMarco’s stolid fastidiousness, but they could try.
The last time I went to Di Fara was just before the pandemic. It was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday and there was no line, like in the old days. There seemed to be half a dozen people working a kind of assembly line behind the counter, and I feared for a moment that Mr. DeMarco had been replaced by a team of cooks.
But every one of them was involved in taking orders, handling cash and making sure each slice ended up in the right hands. Hidden behind this assembly line was Mr. DeMarco, standing on his little square of floor, bowing over the dough, willing the pizzas into existence.