Friday, August 22, 2008

Midwood, Brooklyn

The car's parked beside the “Yeshiva of Flatbush” on Avenue J. If my friend and I were looking for that yeshiva, then we’d be finished with our trip. But we’re not looking for any of the numerous yeshivas of Midwood; we’re on a victual pilgrimage to Di Fara Pizza, lauded by many as the pinnacle of Big Apple pizza. And remember, New York’s a city where every pizza joint advertises, “best pizza in NYC.”
We stroll over to Di Fara on E15 and Avenue J.

Di Fara’s décor, reviewers say, evokes the type of sordid eating establishment that health inspectors either avoid or conveniently forget about. They couldn’t be more drastically mistaken. The décor is perfect. Imagine that a man from southern Italy (in this case Domenico DeMarco) emigrates to the United States, opens a pizza shop, and decades later has not changed the decorations or scrubbed down the wall—purportedly, not once. After visiting Di Fara, it’s obvious that such a man is, by the basic neglect of a conventional commercial aesthetic, a genius. Scattering the walls are outdated photos of the Amalfi Coast and Mount Vesuvius; framed prints of artichokes and other pizza-topping vegetables, subtitled with their scientific Latin names (Cynara scolymus for artichoke); and article after article praising Di Fara. To observe that these walls have taken on a serious dinginess is to observe only half of the atmosphere. Yes, there’s a dinginess that, at this point, would defy any cleaning agent. But the pizzas' smells and tastes brighten up the entire space; they imbue it with lightheartedness, that feeling that “this was worth it.”
A patron must accept that this is no boutique eatery. This is where Domenico DeMarco carefully fashions the tastiest pizza this side of the Mississippi.
If we measure Domenico DeMarco’s success by the taste and notoriety of his pizza, we may have a success to rival Bill Gates. You visit Di Fara Pizza and decide.
I’m loitering by the counter for twenty minutes before Mr. DeMarco notices. He’s preoccupied obsessing over a pie he’s preparing (this is a good thing). He does, however, repeatedly check in with patrons who’ve already ordered. Finally he asks me what I want. I order two slices: One with artichokes, and one with baby eggplant. Twenty more minutes later, the slices are ready. But I’ve actually been fortunate: In order for Mr. DeMarco to prepare a slice, he has to wait for enough people to order enough slices to comprise a whole pie. He makes his pizzas per order, and slices can only come from a complete pie. The wait’s long, but once Mr. DeMarco snips that home-grown basil onto the pizza and that first taste hits the tongue, that long wait is a distant, blurry memory.
Out on the street I take a look around. Di Fara’s neighbors seem unlikely—or, among them, is Di Fara unlikely? There’s Isaac’s Bakery and Kosher Bagel Shop. Men, young adults, and male children wearing yarmulkes; and women, some in tight head-scarves, all shake hands and talk. Some men wrap themselves in woolen prayer shawls. A group of women in traditional Muslim dress passes by among the groups of observant Jews. The encounter is brief, but often what’s simplest and most brief can be most poignant. What I see here looks routine, unremarkable, peaceful. A sense of tension is thankfully absent. There are laughs from somewhere, and a light breeze blows by. Conversations lift energetically and descend in mumbles, as conversations do. Avenue J in Midwood isn’t an ordinary place, considering this intriguing scene, but it feels ordinary and rhythmic. A place where people live, and pass each other on the street, and talk now and then.
My friend directs us to a street (E15 Street) with some quiet row houses and apartment blocs. Kids are playing tag outside. There’s barely a sound, except for the occasional clattering of an elevated subway train.
On one block a used clothing store is having a sale. Multicolored racks of clothes stand outside, lined up on the sidewalk. Women in dark Muslim headdresses meticulously comb through the racks. 

Emerging onto Coney Island Avenue, I see some blocks down what looks like a grand mosque. Two towers—what I guess are minarets—reach above the brick building’s roof. On the way there I tell my friend there’s a chance it’s actually a synagogue designed like a mosque, to achieve a Middle Eastern aura. I’ve seen a Jewish religious and academic building like this in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan.
Once we’re standing across the street from the building’s entrance, we see the huge Star of David dividing the panes of a prominent window.
I say, “That is a synagogue.”

As we pass the Edward R. Murrow High School, I’m struck with the suburban layout of this section of Midwood. Generously proportioned Queen Anne Victorians line the streets; mature elms shade the sidewalk; we pass one or two people.
We find the car and get in, ready to head back up Ocean Avenue.
I struggle to understand which Midwood phenomenon—Di Fara Pizza or the synagogue-mosque or the peaceful mixing of Jews and Muslims—has made the most profound impression on me. That ridiculous artichoke poster, labeled Cynara scolymus, returns to me over and over. Di Fara Pizza. That’s the most extraordinary ingredient at the center of the Midwood patchwork.

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