Illustration by Christophe Marchand
Dec 7, 2020
Inside a very socially distant lunch at Di Fara Pizza
Me: Sister, we need to have lunch.
A year ago, my sister and I had planned to be getting together about this time. I would bring the family up for Thanksgiving or Christmas, maybe a little earlier to do a little leaf peeping. You already know how that plan got blown up from the five thousand other essays you’ve read in the Plans-That-Covid-Blew-Up subgenre.
This, on the other hand, is an essay about the pizza we had on a “virtual lunch date.” She would go to Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn, the best pizza in New York, some say. And I would try “DiFara Pizza,” the proud, plucky Las Vegas spinoff promising to continue the rich tradition of Di Fara pie-making by, among other things, flying in water from the Catskills.
Maybe by exchanging text messages while eating the same-looking thing at the same-named place at technically the same time (11 a.m. for me, 2 p.m. for her), we could reconnect and determine whether you can take the pizza out of New York without, in fact, taking New York out of the pizza. And maybe we could also negotiate this slouching retreat into our pods, video calls and mental panic rooms, in which we start to forget the difference between the “lunches” with sisters you haven’t seen in a year—and the real thing.
Me: Sorry, “lunch.”
Standing there in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, in the soup of cigarette smoke and signature resort odor, warily eyeing sweaty tourists wearing chin diapers instead of masks and largely ignoring the social-distancing floor decals, I realized I had been thinking only of the pizza, and not the location of the pizza when considering whether this pizza could be at all like that pizza. I was standing, after all, in a food court stall almost indistinguishable from the SmashBurger (possibly Panda Express?) next to it, with a neon sign above it that shouted “DiFara Pizza”—a scene entirely removed from the pic my sister sent of an eclectic sidewalk pizza counter with hand-painted lettering on an airy tree-lined Avenue J in Brooklyn, around the corner from RBG’s high school.
Me: It’s interesting to decontextualize a walkable neighborhood street pizza joint and put it in the food equivalent of a small-town zoo, if that metaphor makes any sense?
Sister: But the Vegasification of a Brooklyn hole-in-the-wall is hilarious, right??
Full disclosure: I’m not from New York, so take what I know about pizza with a grain of desert sand. I am from Las Vegas, however, so I know a bit about taking things that were good in other places, stripping them down for parts, and reconstituting them as—depending on budget— either a passable homage or a depressing pantomime: i.e., Vegasification.
I couldn’t confirm the actual ingredients in the slice I ordered, but a conspicuous poster near the cash register expounded on the history of world-famous Di Fara pizza, and boasted each pie featured two types of mozzarella, Grana Padano parmesan, San Marzano tomatoes and water flown in from the Catskill Mountains in New York. Imported New York water! Every New Yorker I’ve asked why New York pizza is so good replies, with a knowing wink, “It’s the water.” Our water in Las Vegas tastes like eating a handful of clay, so I have to take New Yorkers’ word at that.
Sister: Bloomberg water makes the crust neat!
We get our slices and compare notes. Hers are two slices with bubbly crust and freshly clipped basil sprinkled on top. Mine is a flat wedge of orange cheese and pepperoni fresh from the display case.
Were we talking about the same thing here?
Sister: The crust is crispy, right? Not chewy??
Me: No, it’s chewy.
Sister: The sauce is the best part! Chunky tomatoes!
Me: My sauce is pretty bland.
Sister: I also got fancy Italian soda!
Me: Ummm, yes, me too.
Sister: They didn’t have Manhattan Special black cherry soda either?
And so, broiling in the 100-degree late fall sun, sitting on a railing under a fake marble statue of some Roman guy, I started thinking about location again. Maybe terroir is a better word—some mystical quality imparted by and specific to the land in which a thing is created.
Sister: I asked about LV location. Guy told me “It’s different. They don’t use the same water.”
I didn’t taste magic water. I tasted chewy crust, inoffensive sauce and slightly greasy cheesey essence, what I would expect from the mall pizza I grew up with. Which is fine! When you’re at the mall getting some Orange Julius and want something salty and innocuous, it’s fine.
But I’m pretty sure it’s not Di Fara.
Take the B68 bus down Coney Island Avenue on any given day and you may encounter Domenico DeMarco still making pizza the way he’s made it since at least 1965, using the real imported mozzarella and basil he grows on the windowsill of his store and the magic New York water, and it’s something special to people who get a slice for lunch every day they way they have for decades; it means something about where they are and what that slice of pizza is. And now there’s also this place in a food court in the middle of the desert on S. Las Vegas Boulevard that could have just as easily slapped on a name like Thaza Nice Slice or Pizz’Amore or whatever, and it would have gotten the job done.
But instead, they used this guy’s name, with his permission, we’ve somehow accepted that this place is that place, and this pizza is that pizza? And it doesn’t make a difference if you’re in Brooklyn or Las Vegas or anywhere, because pizzaness is entirely relative and therefore doesn’t matter?
Maybe I’m overthinking a slice of pizza. Maybe I’m naive. I may have been fooled by the sign, expecting a recipe “unchanged over the years” to include some sort of agreement between everyone involved—makers and consumers—that it was not just what was included in the pizza, but how and where and why it was included; that flying New York water across the country would somehow bring with it the ability to make mundane pizza ingredients into something amazing, in the same way that texting images of and jokes about the slices of pizza we were eating could maybe turn into a memory we would tell my kids about someday.
Sister: I really hope when this is all over you can come out and eat at the real deal with me.
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