It’s a sad but pretty well-established fact that a good slice is hard to find. Maybe that’s why the recent opening of Artichoke Basille’s Pizza, an unassuming little storefront hard by Stuyvesant Town, has stirred up such febrile excitement on food blogs and in the persons of practically drooling, slightly dazed customers (the Underground Gourmet included). First came the comparisons to the great Brooklyn slice joint Di Fara, on sliceny.com. Then came Keith Richards: “He got a regular slice, and I gave him a piece of spinach-and-artichoke to sample,” says Artichoke co-owner Francis Garcia. “He started doing something with his hands. Playing air guitar and jumping around; it was cool.” If that wasn’t enough of an endorsement, what followed was the culinary equivalent of a papal blessing— a visit from Dave “Momofuku” Chang, who, unlike Keith Richards, did not jump around or play air guitar but, according to a blogger on line behind him, tootled off with three pies.
As for the comparisons to the mighty Di Fara, it should be noted that the place that Artichoke more closely resembles is the underrated takeout annex of De Marco’s, the short-lived slice joint loosely affiliated with Di Fara. De Marco’s was equally tiny, with a similar old-school vibe and distinctly handmade, often delicious slices. Artichoke, though, has another connection to pizza patrimony. Garcia hails from Staten Island, a hotbed of New York pizza history, where Francis and his cousin and partner, Sal Basille, toiled away at a family restaurant, Basille’s, during their formative pizza-making years. “We cooked in the back, we made pizza, we made meatballs,” says Garcia, whose white cap distinguishes him from his equally beefy, black-T-shirt-clad crew, who bring to mind a cross between a college wrestling squad and a Bronx doo-wop group. “Our grandparents taught us everything.”
Whatever the tiny shop lacks in tables and assorted other restaurant trappings—which is to say, everything—it makes up for in personality, and in very tasty, obviously homespun food. This is not dainty stuff. Portions are huge, even sloppy. Grated cheese is strewn with abandon, and tomato sauce liberally applied. The pizza is lumpy, a little heavy-handed with the muzz, occasionally burnt, and undeniably delicious. Of the three varieties usually on hand, the square Sicilian (made with a combination of fresh mozzarella, Polly-O, and a sprinkling of pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano) is our favorite, a hungry-man study in contrasting sharp, salty, sweet, and creamy flavors. The round “Neapolitan” is nearly as good, though you might fault its somewhat stiff, unyielding crust. The best thing the U.G. can say, however, about the artichoke-spinach pie is that Keith Richards apparently loves it. Thick, bready, and anointed with a super-creamy sauce enriched with butter and wine, it’s Garcia’s pride and joy, but kind of an acquired taste.
Outside of the décor, which includes a toothy portrait of the Kennedy brothers and a chandelier, a large part of Artichoke’s charm comes from its improvisational menu, a compendium of Italian-American dishes that pop up on the counter whenever Garcia gets around to it. None of them—not the crisp, greasy cauliflower fritters, nor the flattened meatballs-on-a-stick, nor the mounds of sautéed broccoli rabe mingled with Kalamata olives—should be missed. If you see a batch of crusty house-baked bread, ask Francis or Sal to make you a meatball hero or a massive, juicy broccoli-rabe sandwich sprinkled with pecorino. It’s that kind of place. And don’t neglect the colossal stuffed artichokes, the joint’s namesake dish and clearly Francis Garcia’s madeleine. “They were something that we only had on the holidays,” he says, thinking back to a time when handcrafted slices like his were less of a rarity, perhaps, but just as thrilling to come across.