The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene got caught with its pants down. It was embarrassed in April when a video, broadcast on local stations and then picked up nationally, showed rats overrunning a Taco Bell on Sixth Avenue in the Village after business hours. The rats were actually rather cute, like a Disney cartoon. But the Health Department, to prove that it was doing its job and to dispel lingering notions that it collects bribes, went ballistic, temporarily closing so many places it was hard to keep track.
It closed down John’s in the West Village, one of the city’s original coal-oven pizzerias, which bakes its pies at around 900 degrees. The place reopened two days later. Then, over the next two months, the department closed more places up and down Bleecker Street, pasting its jaundice-yellow signs on windows. The proximity of these closed spots to the Taco Bell on Sixth was a little suspicious. Was the department trying to prove something? We asked Sara Markt, a spokeswoman for the department, and she conceded that there had been a brief blip in the numbers after the rat incident: “We did see a peak in the closure numbers, but in general they’ve returned to the usual level of 20 or 30 per month.”
On June 4 ,the department closed down Dom by which we mean the sainted pizza maker Domenico DeMarco, whose Di Fara Pizza on Avenue J in Brooklyn is generally regarded as the best in the city. Markt denied that the department was trying to prove anything, or that it was as a result of the pizzeria’s very high profile among foodies. “All restaurants undergo routine inspections,” she noted.
Located in Midwood, a neighborhood now largely populated by Orthodox Jews, the pizzeria isn’t much to look at. Dom has been at it in this location for nearly 50 years, and the careworn appearance of the premises is testament to that fact. Yet pots of fresh herbs stand cheerily in the windows, the herbs Dom employs as he fusses over every pie—poking, prodding, and adjusting it by hand, grating and shaking on a bit more cheese before tossing it into the oven. Some of the ingredients—like grana padano, mozzarella di bufala, and canned San Marzano tomatoes (he also uses fresh tomatoes in his sauce) are imported from his native Italy. The lush and herby slices are so good that an hour-long line usually snakes out the front door. It’s hard to imagine that anything in the well-baked slices could make anyone sick.
Among the Health Department’s complaints, which were addressed in a “tribunal” on June 8, was that Dom hadn’t remedied the complaints detailed in an earlier inspection, which resulted in a closure on March 23 this year. For one, neither he nor his staff were wearing plastic gloves, which the most recent inspection noted as if it were some dirty sex act: “food worker observed having bare hand contact with one slice(s) of pizza.”
Who cares? The pizza is baked at 550 degrees, a temperature that kills any bacteria you can test for. Anyway, the inspectors whom the department calls sanitarians don’t really test for bacteria. There can be salmonella jumping on your organic leaf spinach, and they won’t be able to tell. There are no swabs or bacteria cultures or Petri dishes involved. The only scientific apparatus employed is a thermometer, and, as Markt said, “a handheld computer that they use to input their reports. They don’t have a lot of gadgets I’m aware of.” Like ancient oracles, these sanitarians look for signs. As far as we’re concerned, if the milk isn’t refrigerated at the optimal temperature — or in Dom’s case, in a refrigerator fast enough to cool anything a certain number of degrees within a set period of time — it doesn’t matter. If the milk goes sour, you can taste it. And sour milk is not a health problem: It’s called yogurt.
Another of Dom’s problems was mice. An inspection dated May 30, 2007, found two mouse-sized holes and “40 fresh and stale mice excreta observed under two door reach-in refrigerator in kitchen.” Mouse infestation is a problem that most of us have in our apartments, and it doesn’t seem to be hurting us, health-wise. Of course, we sweep the tiny turds off the counter before we begin to cook, but it’s more of an aesthetic issue. Flies? We all have flies, but regard the poisonous, petroleum-based chemicals used to fight them as worse than the insects. Rats are a different matter entirely. Yet, as we walked down Fulton Street in Fort Greene a couple of nights ago, the rats were dancing all over the pavement and climbing out of garbage cans with contented smiles on their faces. Where were the health inspectors then? And why can’t they come into the 21st century and use analytic tools long employed by microbiologists? Until the Health Department can tell us what bacteria were detected, where they were detected, and in what quantity, we’re going to be suspicious of its approach to health inspections, and resentful that they closed down one of the city’s most beloved dining institutions.
The pizzeria will reportedly reopen Friday, but who knows for how long?