From the time he started making pies at Di Fara Pizza in Midwood, Brooklyn, in the mid-1960s until his death last March, Domenico DeMarco had his literal fingerprint on nearly every one of the cheesy creations that he would typically pull out of the gas oven on Avenue J with his bare hands. Born in the province of Caserta in Italy in 1936, DeMarco spent decades making pizzas with little recognition before a favorable review in a city guidebook and media coverage from outlets including The Village Voice made his corner restaurant a destination for pizza pilgrimages in the early 2000s.
When the DeMarco family looked to capitalize on Di Fara’s late success with the opening of DeMarco’s Pizzeria and Restaurant on West Houston Street in 2004, they needed to train aspiring pizzaiolos to make approximations of Domenico’s signature pies. Nino Coniglio, who has been making pizza in Brooklyn since he was 14 years old and is the founder of the six-restaurant chain Williamsburg Pizza, was hired to learn Domenico’s ways and sent to apprentice with him in Midwood.
The first non-family member to train under DeMarco, Coniglio was traveling in Italy when he applied to work at DeMarco’s and had never heard of Di Fara as it was not a well-known pizzeria while he was growing up in Brooklyn. Coniglio also didn’t know anything about Domenico and was simply warned he was “a little funny” by DeMarco’s daughter Maggie before reporting for duty on Avenue J.
“I get there and this guy wouldn’t let me behind the counter. He wouldn’t even speak fucking English to me,” Coniglio, who won a pizza-only edition of Chopped, tells InsideHook. “They’re paying me $17 an hour and he won’t even let me make pizza. I would just stand on the other side of the counter breaking his fucking calzone. I’m like, ‘Hey, old man, you know I’m getting paid $17 an hour to break your balls all day? When are you gonna let me behind the counter?’ After three weeks, I got tired of breaking his balls and eventually he asked me if I wanted a glass of wine after he was done. By that point, I had figured out that this guy wasn’t making money. Everybody thought he was getting rich because there was a line out the door and he was charging $4 a slice and getting it. What nobody realized was the guys charging $1.75 had an 18% food cost and Dom had like a 60% food cost because his ingredients — Parmigiano Reggiano, DOP San Marzano tomatoes from Italy, buffalo mozzarella — were such high quality.”
When Coniglio asked DeMarco why he was operating his business in such a manner, his question was answered with another query: “Do you know the story of Troy?”
DeMarco went on to explain that Achilles chose to go to Troy even though a prophecy foretold he would certainly die there because his choice to go would guarantee men would sing songs about him until the end of time instead of being forgotten in the sands of history after living a long life. “Dom was like, ‘Listen, I was already going to die like a broke pizza guy. Now people are gonna are remember me. So, I’m gonna do this until the shit gives out,”‘ Coniglio says. “When he said that to me, I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I ever heard in my fucking life.”
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That conversation had a lasting impact on Coniglio, and it’s one of the reasons why Williamsburg Pizza takes sourcing seriously, leans on high-quality ingredients and uses a lengthy fermentation process which makes the pizzeria’s dough more digestible, complex and delicious. Chatting with Coniglio following the opening of a Williamsburg Pizza outlet in Omaha, we asked about his time at Di Fara and what else he learned from DeMarco.
InsideHook: Did you adopt Domenico DeMarco’s philosophy about wanting to be remembered for your pizza?
Nino Coniglio: I know guys from being at pizza expos and being part of the international and national pizza community who are like the richest guys you’ve ever seen in your life. They own a hundred horrible pizzerias in the Midwest. There are all these chains you’ve never even heard about that have 50 locations in Idaho. Those guys are richer than you could possibly fucking imagine. But it’s like, what do you want to leave in this world? Those guys are going to be forgotten. I’ll never do a buffalo chicken pizza. I’ll never do something that’s completely disrespectful to the craft of pizza-making. Once you do, no self-respecting food critic or food writer will even walk into your place to give you a try at that point. They are the people who drive other people who have the same mentality as them to you.
Why buffalo chicken specifically?
I have fights with guys I’m friends with all the time about why they have buffalo chicken pizza. They say, “Oh, people want it.” I’m like, “If people want it so bad, why do you make half pies in the morning and then have three slices left over out of four at night? Open up your POS. It’s bullshit. No one wants this shit. If they wanted it, you’d be making five pies as soon as the door opens.” If somebody’s out there making money on that, I’m not gonna squash them. Go make your money if that’s how you have to make money. There’s a place for a business like that, but it’s not what I’m personally passionate about. Di Fara wouldn’t have a buffalo chicken pizza in a million years. He wouldn’t let you put chicken on pizza. He wouldn’t let you put pineapple on pizza. None of that stuff. I’m not saying don’t create. Do what you want. But whatever you do, make sure it’s the best possible thing you can do.
To me, it sounds like it’s generally about high-quality ingredients and relatively simple pizza for you.
At any pizzeria on the planet, the No. 1 pie is going to be pepperoni or plain. Everything else is in the 25% file. Even something as simple as a sausage pizza or pepper-and-onion pizza will be in the 10th percentile of your total sales. Does buffalo chicken pizza taste good? Sure it does. You can throw anything on cheese and bread and it’ll taste good. Does that mean it belongs there? Does that mean it’s the highest deliverable point of that specific thing? I don’t think so. My entire life focus is the alchemy of the dough, buying great ingredients and making sure the toppings, cheese, dough and sauce are all balanced in a way where it’s a completely different experience for you when you bite into it. It’s a lifelong pursuit I’m going to be going after 30 years from now if I’m alive. It’s not something that can ever be truly perfected. As soon as you think it is, then you realize it’s not.
It obviously wouldn’t be buffalo chicken, but what’s your favorite kind of slice?
I like pepperoni, but if you’re going to put me on an island, I’d probably go with margherita or something like that. I wouldn’t go with a topping because I would get sick of it. You can’t get sick of an amazing cheese slice. You can’t. I’d be sick of it eventually, but it’d happen a lot quicker with sausage or pepperoni. With buffalo chicken, it’d happen extra fast. Try eating a buffalo chicken slice every day for a month. Then try eating a great New York slice for a month. At the end of the Buffalo chicken month, you’d lose your fucking mind. At the end of the New York slice month, you might be sick of fucking pizza, but you won’t fucking lose your mind like Tom Hanks in Castaway.
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