More than just a slice of Italy on Houston St.

Sometimes the stories write themselves – yesterday’s visit to DeMarco’s, at the corner of W. Houston and MacDougal Sts., was one such occasion. After inspecting the exterior menu and taking a deep price-related breath, I walked in determined to order a slice or two to go. The moment I walked in, though, things changed slightly. Instead of a traditional New York pizzeria, where the oven dominates the room, the pies sit out front, and the décor is usually recycled from a 70’s fast food restaurant demolition, I was confronted by a clean, modern, if plain restaurant, with a single customer gabbing in Italian with the chef and a bored waitress slumped on the bar. This would require further investigation.

I took a stool and gave a cursory glance at the menu before ordering what the other customer had – what’s known in Europe and certain places around these parts as a Pizza Margherita. It’s the simplest Neapolitan pizza out there – just crust, tomatoes, fresh basil, and mozzarella di bufala. It’s also the easiest to screw up – there’s not much margin for error with so few ingredients, and if any of them are off (or out of balance), the pie just isn’t the same.

Fortunately, I was in the hands of a chef who was having an extremely good day. The gent at the bar turned out to be a former co-worker who the proprietor had hired at his first job in America – and who saved all of his money (the chef told a story about finding a bureau drawer full of cash while looking for a pair of pants to borrow) and went into “business” for himself – doing very nicely in the process, if his $10 tip on $14 worth of pizza is to be believed.

At any rate, this man’s presence made the chef pleased as punch and very happy to talk about his pies – I discerned that his ingredients were all imported from Italy, and that he changes the kind of water he uses in the crust based on the humidity of the air (I didn’t dare ask how the two were related – seemed like I was already being let in on a secret). He revealed that he has someone else put the pies in the oven and take them out, because he always seemed to screw that step up somehow (the burn marks on his arms seemed to confirm this fact). I also heard stories about at least two different mutual friends of the men who resorted to credit card scamming and were ruined. Unsolicited advice: if you’re going to borrow credit cards that patrons leave behind to do a little shopping, don’t go to places in your own town with security cameras.

Soon my pie arrived, and I was in hog heaven. The 12” Margherita is the most European pizza I’ve ever eaten in America – while I had bad experiences with pizza in Italy, this pie was more than a match for the places I used to frequent in Berlin and Prague. Starting with a firm but chewy crust, a tomato sauce with a flavor that I’ve never had in America, and finishing with a hint of fresh basil and a generous layer of mozzarella, the pie was to die for. My one and only complaint was that the center of the pie was a bit soggy – the addition of olive oil as a last step is a phenomenon I’m still trying to understand. Make no mistake, though – I lapped up the pizza like a kitten does milk.

After his buddy left, the chef disappeared into the back, coming out only to collect my plate and make sure that I was satisfied. The waitress eventually ambled over and intimated that she didn’t know why she was there, and that it had thus far been a bad day. Not being a truly alert conversationalist, I neglected to ask why, but I remarked that working for that chef must be exciting, in a sense. She sighed, and I could tell that all she really wanted was a job where she wouldn’t have to deal with this crazy guy all the time. Personally, I don’t think she knew how good she had it, but I left her a big tip anyway…and also because they had no one-dollar bills, or change.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “More than just a slice of Italy on Houston St.

  1. Abe

    wow, that guy is *never* in a good mood. Not that it really has anything to with pizza quality. Actually I think the perpetual family drama in the spot is part of what makes the pizza so good. There is actually a more traditional take out counter around the corner on Houston if you want a bit more NY in the slice. Also try the pepperoni next time, it’s pretty damn amazing. Only draw back to that place is the tourist prices they charge…

  2. Yeah, I rooted around on sliceny.com and found that I had apparently missed the whole “pizza express” thing. Shame on me. I’m not a slice guy by nature, though – one friend of mine and I used to have serious arguments because of his avowed preference for reheated pizza slices over a fresh pie, which is as close to food sacrilege as it gets for me (not to say I don’t enjoy a slice, just that I wouldn’t ever call it better).It IS too bad about the prices – I’d be tempted to eat there much more if the 12″ pie was under $9, like the places I mentioned in Europe.

  3. I tried a slice from the “express” counter and there’s no way it’s as good as what you had. Unless I was just really unlucky. It wasn’t that the slice I had was awful, but it wasn’t very hot and…eehhh…that once slice represents all the pizza I’ve ever had in NYC. Scary. I need to eat freshly made pizza at some point, but I’d have to drag people with me. I’m not getting a pie for myself, hehe.

  4. abe

    Robyn – the first slice I had at both DeMarco’s and DiFara’s was a let down, the subtlety of the slices just doesn’t come out in that first slice. By the second visit I was understanding and the third completely hooked, spent about a month straight eating that stuff… mike, reheated pizza can be amazing, but it needs to be a good pizza first. Actually I sometimes like it cool to cold the best…

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