Midwood and East Harlem.
Unless you live there or have a very specific errand to run, they're not neighborhoods you regularly make a beeline for. Well, I had a specific errand the other weekend, and that errand was called: pizza consumption. East Harlem is the home of Patsy's, one of the old masters in the New York Pizza Hall of Fame. Midwood is where you'll find DiFara's, a corner pizzeria many call the best in the city.
I had recently made a pilgrimage to Grimaldi's (an offshoot of Patsy's), and—having already patronized Totonno's, John's and Lombardi's—decided it was time to knock a couple more classic pie palaces off my "to do" list.
Patsy's is on First Avenue and 118th, surrounding by a whole bunch of "not much." The area (like many in New York) used to be heavily Italian, but now the only remnants of those days are a barber, a bakery, celebrity ghetto Rao's, and Patsy's. The green-painted façade looks very much like it probably did decades ago and the inside, while more expansive than it once was (Patsy's takes up three storefronts) is appealingly minimal: tin ceilings, wooden table and chairs, etc.
I ate at a Patsy's extension in Chelsea a couple months back and had adequate pizza. I'd like to report that the pies at the original address are head and shoulders above its same-named brethren (as has always been the case with John's—home base Bleeker Street is the best). Alas, such was not the case. If I'd encountered this pizza in Milwaukee or Savannah or wherever, I'd be half over the moon. It's fine, old-fashioned, Neapolitan pizza. But this is New York, pizza center of the U.S, and Patsy's is supposed to be up there at the top. But that fact is I'd rate almost all of the above-mentioned pizzerias above it. Grimaldi's, in particular, is still fresh in my memory, and it's creations had far more character and flavor.
DiFara's, on Avenue J and 15th Street, is a very different case. The humble corner store is again one of the last remainders of vibrant Italian neighborhood. Midwood is now largely Hasidic, with Kosher stores left and right (including quite a few selling that sad, near-tasteless culinary specimen: Kosher pizza).
This is artisinal pizza. Each pie is put together by old Dominick DeMarco himself. (Last spring, when he was in the hospital, he shut down the shop rather than have anyone else assemble the pizzas.) Watching him at work is half the treat of visiting the place, which opens at 11 AM and is pretty backed up by noon, even on a weekday. The key appears to be three cheeses, freshly prepared. Once the dough is formed and the piquant, fruity tomato sauce spread, Dominic grabs a grater and runs a lump of mozzarella against is, let the plump chunks of cheese drop onto the pizza. He then does the same with the much more expensive buffalo mozzarella (or, more correctly, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana), the cheese they use in Naples and something almost never seen in a typical New York streetside pizzeria. Finally, he grinds up a block of romano, right then and there, and spreads it over the pizza. After that, he takes a bunch of basil with biggest leaves I've ever seen (he grows it in the window), and, with a scissors, snips at the ends until a sufficient amount has fallen on the pie. Then, in the oven it goes and he begins again. It's pure poetry. The waiting hungry just stand and stare in wonder. No one complains that it takes too long. It's too good a show.
The slice itself betrays all those fresh flavors when eaten. It is fragrant and savory, a riot of tantalizing flavors, and on the greasy side as New York pizzas go. (This is not a criticism; grease should be so tasty.) He offers interesting toppings like marinated porcini mushrooms and zucchini blossoms, but go with the plain slice first. The Sicilian is also worth checking out. There's a big menu advertising pasta dishes and heros. Can't imagine who orders those when such pizza is on offer.