TWO NEW YORK FOOD TRANPLANTS
As a transplanted New Yorker myself, (a term I loathe,) I understand the urge to move west. But I kind-of hate it when food places do. I like each area of the country to have its own special niche. Part of what makes these indigenous foods such fun is knowing that it takes a whole lot of effort (traveling, having them shipped to us, knowing a friend is bringing them when he or she visits, etc.) to have the treats.
I try to make believe that my beloved Carvel is not readily available in West Los Angeles, so that stocking up on their delicious Flying Saucers the second my feet touch Brooklyn is extra-special.
But it’s worse when not-very-good establishments come this way. I don’t patronize them in New York, and it’s going to drive me crazy to watch all the people with bad taste, and some phonies, to boot, be thrilled that they’re setting-up out here.
Even though there’s no law that says I have to eat these foods, no matter where they’re located, it bothers me that they’re here in Los Angeles now, like the recently-opened Magnolia Bakery, which is rumored to soon be followed by DiFara’s Pizza. I reviewed the originals on two different episodes of my show, Karen’s Restaurant Revue, several years ago, labeling them both as two of the Emperor’s New Clothes of eateries. [For those of you who have forgotten your childhood, (and, sadly, that’s more and more of you these days,) the story is of an Emperor who parades through the streets naked, yet no one wants to be the first to let him know, so they all pretend he’s not, and laud his wonderful robe. (It’s not there, in case you still don’t understand the story.) Like people who are afraid to tell the truth about how not great these snacks really are.]
I wish that my podcast was already set-up on this site because it’s much easier to tell you verbally what I think of these places than to write about them, but I’ll try my best. (If I could find those particular shows, I’d just transcribe the reviews, but good luck to me on knowing where specific shows are in my “files.”)
Many years ago, way before the nationwide cupcake-mania, there was Magnolia Bakery in the West Village. I first found-out about it at a dinner near-by with my friends Jeff, Anna, and Lloyd. Jeff knows everything that’s hip and happening in New York, especially foodie meccas. He’s taught me so much in the almost-decade we’ve been friends.
We were about to have dessert at the restaurant we were at, when he suggested going to Magnolia instead. He was shocked that Lloyd, a New Yorker, and I, a knowledgeable restaurant critic who spends a third of my year on the east coast, had never heard of it. So, off we went into the warm summer night, for a wonderful, or so we thought, adventure. (We did have fun with it, though. And it made for a great funny story for my show, which makes even rotten times worth it. You know me–everything for comedy.)
We got there at about 11PM on a Friday night, and as warned, the line was around the block. I really do hate waiting in line, but I was with friends I get to see only about four times a year, and it was early (in my world,) so the wait was fine. As we got closer to the place to look in the window, I started to drool. I’ve always loved cupcakes (growing-up, I had a Hostess one almost every day for breakfast or an after-school or pre-bedtime snack–no wonder I’m a little nuts, actually) and I couldn’t wait to have ones that New Yorkers were willing to wait hours for!
When I saw all the pretty pastel frostings, I started trying to decide just which flavor to treat my taste buds to. So, I asked Anna if she knew the flavors by heart. She answered, “vanilla and chocolate.” I was so stymied, I queried, “Vanilla and chocolate what?” She told me that those are the two flavors. Two flavors????? Was she kidding? English is her second language, so I thought that perhaps she had misunderstood me. I just could not wrap my head around the fact that I had just waited in line for over an hour for just a plain chocolate cupcake!!! The icing colors were just a façade! I was in shock.
Jeff, ever the optimist, assured me that they were “awesome,” so I tried to hide my disappointment. When we got to the doorway, there was a gorgon at the gate, handing out small boxes and letting us know that we could each get only two. No problem here, sir! Two was one too many for me. I noticed that they had only a couple of other treats, which no one was getting. They had all waited on line for solely these plain cupcakes. Thankfully, they had milk, so it wouldn’t be a total loss. And I was still pretty skinny, so the idea of wasted calories hadn’t yet occurred to me.
So, our eight cupcakes and one small bottle of milk in hand, we had to find someplace to sample our booty. We joined the crowd in the tiny park diagonally across from the bakery (and where the gorgon had directed us to go.) That is, until the cops chased us out. (We had already finished eating by then, though, so that little debacle did not color my opinion of the edibles at all.) Of course, I felt it was my duty to discuss the sitch with the cops, feeling they couldn’t arrest me for anything–I was just a visitor to the city. My friends stopped me when the cops ceased to be amused by my grilling of them. I had become “Karen Salkin–cupcake-consuming criminal!”
So, back to the Magnolia Bakery cupcakes. Never one to rain on the parade of others, unless asked, in which case I try to tell the absolute truth, I let Lloyd state his opinion first, while I tried to figure out a kind way of telling mine. We all looked to Lloyd for his assessment, which we expected would be glowing. (He and Jeff think similarly when it comes to hip-ness factors.) He matter-of-factly stated, “It’s a cupcake.” Whew, was I relieved! Now I could give my honest opinion, as well. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t anything special. And definitely not worth the time, calories, or cash.
This may be puffed-up of me, but I really think that telling this story on my show is what started the cupcake craze out here. No one had ever heard of cupcake places before, and I got tons of calls about it. It was one of my most popular segments of that era. Within a year, here comes Sprinkles in Beverly Hills, and the lines formed down the block, just as they were doing at Magnolia at the time. I really do think that the owners of Sprinkles saw the review on the show, and even though I basically said, “Ugh,” they just heard the part about it being a cash cow. So they opened and all the other cupcakeries followed suit. And, I really do think I started it all, not that it does me any good. But, I get to add “trend-setter” next to “cupcake-consuming criminal” after name, so I have that.
An addendum to this story is that the other night, a hip neighbor of ours invited us over for…Magnolia Bakery cupcakes! From the new one in L.A! Though I loved the relaxing time we had in his beautiful garden, noshing on sweets and catching-up, the L.A. versions did nothing to change my mind on the banality of the products. (Reminder–I’m not saying that they’re bad, just nothing special.) In all fairness, though, Mr. X, who had never had them before, thought they were great.
But, remember–he doesn’t get out much. No joking. And if a stranger served him wood, he would politely eat it and say it was delicious. And he doesn’t eat cupcakes as a rule, so his opinion doesn’t mean much in this case. But being an Italian boy from Jersey, I’m positive he would agree with me on the next place.
DI FARA PIZZA
There’s not too much to say about Di Fara Pizza, other than: it’s just not special. And I don’t want nescients out here to think in any way, shape, or form that it’s representative of what is called “Brooklyn pizza.” There are already four places out here that are worthy of that label (LaRocco’s in Culver City, Cialuzzi in Redondo Beach, Joe’s in West Hollywood and Santa Monica, and Paisanos in Hermosa Beach, though the personnel is kind-of brusque at the last one.) We don’t need a bad pizza place from the homeland to confuse Angelenos.
I grew-up right near Di Fara (which is on Ave. J and E. 15th St. in Brooklyn,) and was always surprised by its fans. There was a gazillion times better pizzeria down the block, (on J and 13th) called Pizza Center. That was the main food item I missed when I moved out here as a teen-ager. (And Joy Fong Chinese food on the block, as well. Boy, that Ave. J was the place to be back then!!!) Every trip home included a whole pie from Pizza Center. When childhood friends would say that they were fans of Di Fara, I couldn’t help thinking just a little less of them, I must admit. There were many of us who felt the same way.
On a trip home a little over a decade ago, in a snowstorm, I made my poor father drive me to Pizza Center. To my horror, it wasn’t there anymore! My always practical patriarch naively said, “We’ll get you pizza from up the block.” I almost passed out and actually started hollering a tad. I was also crying. He didn’t know what to do, so he kept driving up Ave. J. All of a sudden, I could smell my precious pizza! (Yes, through the snow. True story.) I ran into this new place, and there was Jerry, the pizza guy! Pizza Center had just moved (and changed names,) but I was saved.
On a subsequent trip, I arrived on a Friday night, and immediately dialed them up to say I’d be right there for a whole pie. No answer. I called for about a half hour, and then my mother said, “It’s Friday night, and everyone’s religious around here now, so they’re probably closed.” It started dawning on me, like in a Hitchcock movie, that maybe they had turned kosher, like most of the other places on Ave. J. I refused to let myself believe that, but my mind raced for the next twenty-four hours, until kosher places opened on Saturday night.
When Jerry answered the phone, I let out a sigh of relief, and told him of my, I thought unfounded, concern. He had to confess that he did, indeed, sell to a kosher company, but stayed on as a consultant, and implored me to try it, saying it was the same old pizza. To be nice, I did, but alas and alack, my beloved Pizza Center pizza was no more.
A few days later, I decided to buck up and give Di Fara one more try, out of respect for hanging in there as it was. But, it was not what pizza from Brooklyn should be, on any level. I vowed to not return, but a couple of years later, when my father had just passed away and friends from Rhode Island were visiting my mother and me to distract us, I wanted to pick-up a quick lunch for them, so we again stopped at close-by Di Fara. First of all, my pals were appalled at how dirty the joint was. (So was I, but I pretended not to notice, in case they hadn’t.) And then, they couldn’t believe that this is famous Brooklyn pizza because it’s soooo not special.
As years went on, I noticed that Di Fara has received many write-ups. Always one to give every one and thing a second chance (and third, and fourth, down the line,) I stopped-by on the way out of town just two short years ago, because I was near-by and needed something quick to eat while I packed. To my shock, there was a line for this pizza! So, I erroneously assumed that it had somehow gotten better.
But no. It was the same old same old. Greasy, with way too-sweet sauce, and just plain nasty. And I was starving then, which is when everything usually tastes better!
And now, it’s supposedly coming to my adopted shores. And the good people of Los Angeles will read and hear all the hype, and judge Brooklyn pizza by Di Fara and wonder what all the fuss has always been about.
So, I’m begging all of you, try it if you must, but please, please, please don’t think this is the standard for Brooklyn pizza. Unless you, too, are among the delusional people who actually think it’s great.