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20080407-bubblesbug.jpgArtichoke, man. What can be said about this place that hasn't already been argued about on Slice and a slew of other websites in recent weeks? I have been to the joint three different times—twice last weekend after word first broke on Slice and Chowhound and once this past Friday night—and I'm here to say that their pizza has already improved.

I had a chat with Francis Basille, one of the owners who grew up making pies at Basille's in Staten Island and asked him about Eric Miller (doesn't know him from Adam—not Kuban, the proverbial Adam!), the ingredients he uses, and the opening of his restaurant in the pizza-saturated East Village.

Now I'm gonna have a chat with you guys about why Artichoke's reception has been so incendiary—there have certainly been differences in opinion and we'll see if we can get to the bottom of this once and for all. I want to hear from those of you who've tried the joint when it first opened and went back in recent days to see if anyone agrees with my contention that Artichoke's plain slice is better now than it was when they opened.

Opening a restaurant isn't easy. I would venture to guess it's an even more difficult venture when you're doing it in New York. Opening a pizzeria within two blocks of Una Pizza Napoletana, Vinny Vincenz, and Luzzo's is effing insane. No matter, though. Each visit I've made to Artichoke (which has run the gamut from early in the afternoon to late in the evening after moonwalking to MJ at Karma down the street), it hasn't seemed like they were hurting for business.

Francis and the boys have certainly not been easy on themselves—staying open until the wee hours of the night when the post-bar business picks up and trudging back in the next day from Staten Island to open up for the lunch rush. You gotta have a lot of love for the slice game to do that. I sound like I've taken a sympathetic tone toward this place and guess what—I have. You can tell these guys will do what it takes to make this place the best that it can be or die trying. You gotta respect that.

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And you gotta give credit where it's due and, in this case, we owe some to the Choke. I will go on record saying that there has been a noticeable increase in the quality of their plain slice in little more than a week. That, my friends, is pretty impressive. How did this happen? Remember when Ed reviewed Artichoke and mentioned that the crust lacked the interior chewiness that all pizzas must have in order to ascend to true greatness?

Artichoke is starting to get there—only a week ago they were serving a thin, overly crisp crust, whereas now they are making it slightly thicker and, although it still has the crispness on the outside, it also has a more chewy interior. I think they also dust the outer crust with a little pecorino Romano before it goes in the oven. Great touch.

Basille was hesitant to say what temperature he kept his oven at because oven thermostats are often inaccurate, but my pie had as much char as could be expected from a gas oven. I also noticed that the bottom of the crust had a cornmeal-type substance covering it. It works for me, but I can understand how some may find it a bit gimmicky. Francis mentioned he was using a high-quality aged/fresh mozz blend to top his plain pies, in addition to the finishing touch of pecorino Romano reggiano and fresh basil when they come out of the oven à la Di Fara. Initially, there was too much of the mozz on the pie, but that's under control now, as well. To me, though, the sauce is the star here—the Choke is using a great Italian tomato blend from a producer named Nina. Francis assured me there was no sugar being added to the sauce, so we're good to go!

While certain nimwits out there made some outrageous claims when Artichoke first opened, I think reason has prevailed and we can (hopefully) all agree that we need to let Artichoke stand on its own. I will say this, though: for Manhattan sliceterias, Artichoke is the one slice joint that is most similar to Di Fara in terms of style and quality, and that would have still been true when DeMarco's was around. The owners of DeMarco's were actually trying to emulate their father and sensei over at Di Fara; Artichoke isn't. The owners of the Choke are representing Staten Island (Shaolin!), not Avenue J, and they are doing a damn good job. For the record, I'd take Artichoke over Denino's in a pie-off any day.

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I want everyone to keep in mind that I've only been talking about the plain slice. Although I like their Sicilian slice, I haven't tried the artichoke and spinach slice and I don't think I will—you guys know I like to keep it plain and simple when it comes to my pie! And that brings me to my final point: if given the choice, I'm gonna keep it simple—real simple—when it comes to pizza. I'm a true Neapolitan purist at heart—give me a pizza Margherita cooked in a coal oven and I couldn't be any happier.

The understated brilliance of fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, a little basil and a pour of olive oil on dough made from the purest wheat on earth is unrivaled in my mind. While I have an enormous amount of respect for pizzerias like Di Fara and Artichoke—places that use several different cheeses on their pies, more olive oil, and cook their pies in gas ovens—they can sometimes be a bit too rich for my taste. A true Margherita is something I could eat every day, but Di Fara and Artichoke? Once a week is good for me. For better or worse, pizza Margherita is the love of my life. Sad but true!

Nevertheless, Artichoke has Bubbles' full blessing. Francis and crew: keep on keepin' on!

Bubbles out!

ARTICHOKE

Address: 328 East 14th Street, New York NY 10003
Address: 212-228-2004

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