Hold the New York Eulogies: Artichoke Is a Hit

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Many New Yorkers mourn the passing of independent shops, music venues, retailers, and, especially, restaurants. When the legendary Second Avenue Deli relocated to a side street near Third Avenue and was replaced by a Chase bank, it incited a barrage of “New York is dying” eulogies.

It is of no small significance, then, that the city’s latest food sensation, Artichoke Basille’s Pizza & Brewery, a family-run pizza restaurant, opened recently in a storefront at 328 E. 14th St. that formerly housed a Cingular Wireless outlet under a bright orange awning. New Yorkers are so hungry for Artichoke’s slices that a queue forms outside the restaurant each day just before lunchtime and does not die down often until the wee hours of the morning. Stretching down 14th Street even farther than the line is the smell of baking dough, melted cheese, and artichokes.

“This is a little something me and Sal wanted to do, to take a chance and do something in Manhattan, the big city,” an Artichoke co-owner, Francis Garcia, 30, said, referring to his cousin, Salvatore Basile, 29, the other Artichoke co-owner.

Adam Kuban, the founder of Slice, a Web log that chronicles the city’s pizza scene, is one of the food Web loggers who have helped put Artichoke on the map since it opened just after St. Patrick’s Day.

“These guys came along, and they’ve immediately joined a small crew of people making serious slices,” Mr. Kuban said. “Manhattan has kind of fallen down when it comes to slices. There are a few places holding down the fort other than that, some of the better slices are outside Manhattan.”

He said some of Manhattan’s best slices can be found at Joe’s in the West Village, Sal’s and Carmine’s on the Upper West Side, Vinny Vincenz in the East Village, and Pizza Box on Bleecker Street.

Artichoke doesn’t have a menu, and there is no seating and just a few square feet of standing room. To preorder an entire pie during prime time requires four hours’ advance notice.

Behind the counter in a hot kitchen, pizza makers knead and roll out the dough, wiping away sweat with bare forearms. Messrs. Garcia and Basile double-bake their “burnt anchovy” pies, which sell for $18. Halfway through the baking process, they remove the pie from the oven and let the cheese melt. When the pie cools down, they put it back in the oven, so the cheese gets crispy and the crust doesn’t burn.

Artichoke’s pizza sauce doesn’t contain any oregano or garlic. “A good tomato is all you need,” Mr. Garcia said.

The cousins use two types of mozzarella cheese, which they cut into blocks rather than shredding. They let the cheese cook on the dough, and then they add the sauce, basil, and grated cheese on top. The crust is thick and well-cooked.

“I don’t do toppings,” Mr. Garcia said. “Toppings were really never intended to put on pizza.”

They also serve extra-thick Sicilian pies for $19, a traditional round pizza for $15, and their artichoke and spinach pie for $20. Slices cost between $2 and $3.

Mr. Garcia said it takes him 90 minutes to prepare the artichoke sauce, but he wouldn’t disclose ingredients other than artichokes, spinach, and cheese.

“Its something we are very proud of. I make it on Staten Island.”

Slice’s Mr. Kuban said he loves Artichoke’s plain pizza and its “light and airy” Sicilian square, but the artichoke pizza doesn’t do it for him: “It reminded me of this artichoke spread that I used to eat at a local brewery in college.”

But the signature slice does not suffer for fans. An East Village resident lined up outside Artichoke, Graham Connolly, said he has been spreading the word among friends about the “deadly” artichoke slice.

Mr. Connolly, a New Jersey native, said the best pizza is typically from the Garden State and Staten Island. “Pizza stinks in Manhattan for the most part. Most places use bad ingredients,” he said. “But New Yorkers will wait on line for an hour for a slice of pizza. They won’t do that anywhere else in the world.”

Starting in July, Artichoke will offer a 32-ounce Styrofoam cup of draft Budweiser for $5. Now, there is only a half-size refrigerator with bottles of root beer and seltzer water. “If you serve Bud at 33 degrees, if you keep it cold, you can turn it over fast,” Mr. Garcia said. “I anticipate the beer being a big hit.”

Messrs. Basile and Garcia come from a long line of Italian restaurateurs.

Mr. Basile’s mother runs Basille’s in Staten Island, and Mr. Garcia’s mother runs Solo Bella Brick Oven Bistro in Jackson, N.J. The two joke about their mothers opening a restaurant called Mamachoke in Manhattan. “The line would run to Times Square,” Mr. Garcia said.

“Manhattan needs a good Italian place. Everything here is too fancy. They don’t have enough comfort food, and I leave a lot of these places hungry. A place with a good baked ziti and fried calamari would kill,” he said.

Their great-grandfather ran a pastry shop at Court Street in Carroll Gardens. Their grandfather ran hero shops across Brooklyn and Staten Island.

“Our grandfather taught us how to wake up and go make bread crumbs, go make sauce, go make meatballs. He believed in getting up early and going to work. He was an animal. He was a machine, he was a workaholic,” Mr. Garcia recalled.

Their grandfather’s hammer is permanently wedged into a brick wall in Artichoke’s cramped interior. Their great-grandfather’s painting of the three Kennedy brothers hangs on the opposite wall, along with a photo of Sal and Francis as youngsters.

To outfit the restaurant, the cousins purchased three used pizza ovens from a dying restaurant near Times Square for $7,500 and bought a chandelier on Craigslist.org from someone in Ozone Park for $200. Customers lean on a homemade handrail to gain leverage on the giant slices. Two large glass jars on the counter contain sliced cherry peppers and jalapeños. Golden oldies play from an iPod.

Artichoke’s inconsistent operating schedule has elicited some frustration among Web loggers, particularly from pizza lovers who travel from far and wide for a slice, but the owners earlier this month pledged to open for lunch every day.

“It’s a small store. We’re not getting rich, but we’re making a couple of bucks. The bills are paid. The rent is paid,” he said. “I have a stack of business cards from people who want to invest. Its something we are thinking about, but not yet. It’s hard to duplicate yourself. A lot of this business is us.”

The New York Sun

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