Brooklyn Pizza

by

03/24/2022

Neighborhood: Midwood, South Brooklyn

Pizzaiolo, Flatbush Avenue 1975

On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2022, it might have been easy to let slip the New York Times obituary of an Italian-American octogenarian. But I sat up straight when I saw the name Domenico DeMarco, the legendary pizza maker who founded Di Fara’s Pizza on Avenue J in 1965. I had read about him for years and heard his praises sung.

I never tasted one of his pies. For years I had intended to drive to Midwood to sample his famous pizza. But I could never bring myself to wait in line for up to two hours, as some of Di Fara’s satisfied customers proclaimed they did on WNYC-FM, for something so readily available elsewhere. 

As a teenager in South Brooklyn in the 1960s, I could go a block or two in any direction and find a good pizzeria. My friends and I took eating it for granted and didn’t think about it unless we had to show the rare out-of-town relative how to fold a slice in half to eat while walking. 

We really enjoyed the Prospect Avenue/ Fifth Avenue pizza war of 1960. At that time our go-to place Lenny’s Pizzeria, still operating today at the original site, charged fifty cents for a regular slice. One day a new pizzeria opened across Prospect Avenue, about a half block away, charging forty-five cents per slice. Suddenly we had a new go-to place. A few days later Lenny’s slice was forty cents. We followed the market like young Wall Street traders and walked from store to store before buying our slices. The new place dropped to thirty-five, Lenny’s countered with a two-for fifty cents “special”. But as we eventually learned about life: all good things come to an end. One afternoon we found that volatility had left the market, and a slice cost sixty cents at both pizzerias.

Pete Wells, in his March 17th New York Times appreciation of Di Fara’s, wrote more than a tribute to Mr. DeMarco. He gave his readers a history of pizza making in New York City and a summary of the ongoing dispute about the pros and cons of gas vs. coal ovens, and slice vs. whole pie. I’m no expert, but I do know what I like. I’ve eaten at famous pizzerias like Grimaldi’s, Totonno’s, Lento’s and Patsy’s. And I’ve eaten at unknown – except to locals – places in every borough for over 50 years. I’ve yet to have an actually BAD slice of pizza. Of course, some pizzas are better or fresher or more interesting than others. But more often than not, especially if you’re driving or walking in a hurry, a warm slice hits the spot.

Reading about Di Fara’s brought to mind some of the pizzerias I’ve frequented and some of the photographs I have taken there. In 1975, I was working in a Manhattan photo studio during the day and going to graduate school at Brooklyn College two nights a week. Before class I usually “grabbed” a quick slice at a pizzeria on Flatbush Avenue. One night I photographed the pizza maker standing behind the counter in front of framed photos of his children.

In 1998, I photographed Coney Island’s renowned Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano for BROOKLYN BRIDGE MAGAZINE. Because Totonno’s is famous for its ancient coal-fired brick oven, the magazine’s art director asked me to be there for the coal delivery scheduled for 8:00 AM. Fortunately for me, the delivery did not arrive until 3:00 PM so I spent almost an entire day photographing the owners, staff and customers. And I ate two small pies!

Before leaving I asked the proprietors Joel and Louise Ciminieri (whose grandfather Anthony Pero, nicknamed Totonno, opened the pizzeria in 1924) to come outside for one more photo in front of the restaurant. I posed them as the couple in Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic.

Neopolitan Gothic 1998

When I’m in Brooklyn these days, I often stop for a slice and a zeppole at Luigi’s Pizza on Fifth Avenue near 21st Street, where it opened in 1973. Luigi’s son Giovanni runs the pizzeria now with other family members and charges only $2.50 for a tasty fresh slice. In a recent YouTube video he proudly states, “I’m against high price pizza.”

Giovanni with his late mother and staff, Luigi’s Pizza 2010

My favorite pizza photography story is one of my first. In the early 1970’s I had a black and white darkroom in a Sunset Park storefront space I shared with my brother’s band THE SHIRTS and some other friends. On the way home after a day of printing, I often stopped for a slice at ZaZa’s on the corner of 47th Street and Fifth Avenue. (It now has new owners and a different name, Luigi’s Pizza, but is not connected to the “Original” Luigi’s on 21st Street.). 

One day I photographed the owner, whose name I do not remember, and his assistant tossing pies in the air, catching them and putting them into the oven. A few days later I showed him a black and white contact sheet. He asked for two prints and paid for them with a “free” slice and a Coke. My career had begun.

Tossing pies at ZaZa’s 1971

***

Larry Racioppo returned to South Brooklyn in 1970 after two years in California as a VISTA volunteer and had no plans and a $30 camera he barely knew how to use. He took a course at the School of Visual Arts, a job with the telephone company and began to photograph his family and friends. 

Things worked out better than he could have expected.

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§ 5 Responses to “Brooklyn Pizza”

  • Allen Blitz says:

    I had a slice at di Fara’s a long time ago. It was good, damn good. He got famous which is nice
    But somebody shoulda written up a piece on the lasagna you got at Paradise Pizza on the Grand Concourse near West 184th Street in the 60’s and 70’s. Now that was formidable. Joe and his brother they knew lasagna!

  • I’ve known Larry since 1979 and he has the honor of being the God Father of my son Russ, born in 1985. I’m not sure if I ever read anything he wrote before this lovely article, but I’ve certainly enjoyed all of his photos throughout his career (even my wedding announcement photos!) Go Larry! Since I live very near some of these pizza parlors, I hope post-covid, he and I will share a pie together. Bravo!

  • Nick S. says:

    A couple of comments: The pizza price war had got the price down to ten cents a slice, as I fondly, if fallibly, recollect. The original Luigi got his start as a pizzaiolo at Lenny’s. But as good as Lenny’s pie was, and Luigi’s is, DiFara’s was better — better even than Totonno’s, which is as high as praise can reach, this side of the Mediterranean. Lastly, Larry’s Neapolitan Gothic is brilliant.

  • Amy Peck says:

    I’m laughing, and I’m hungry!

  • Elizabeth Farkas says:

    I loved DiFara and the pizza. It was a unique experience watching Dom make the pizza with his own hands, and check for the doneness with those same bare hands in the blazing hot oven. Each pizza in its own way was a work of art. No two were alike. But ultimately I stopped going there after 2014. It became a tourist trap. Long lines, outrageous prices, and you could no longer sit inside to eat because his family (who I believe were behind a lot of the financial decisions) were renting out the tiny cramped, dirty eatery that hadn’t been painted in 50 years to tourists for private parties for hundreds of dollars. To me that was the last straw. I know in the end prices are always set by what the market will bear but this was not a fancy sit down establishment and until the NYTimes brought attention the place, the only folks who would venture over to Ave J lived in the neighborhood. His kids are opportunists and they took advantage of an old man whose only passion was to make the best pie. It’s heartbreaking the greed.

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