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NYC Quintessentials: Arturo's Coal-Oven Pizza

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Arturo's on Houston is one of NYC's stalwart coal-oven joints. [Photos: Adam Kuban]

Wood-fired ovens. Neapolitan pies. Fancy and inventive toppings. Neo-NYC-style. A Roman invasion. Amid these major and minor trends in pizza NYC's coal-die oldies soldier on.

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

So it is at Arturo's on Houston. The lines may not be as long as at Lombardi's or John's but where there's always a crowd (and often a wait) for dinner.

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Unlike Lombardi's and John's, though—Arturo's nearest coal-oven neighbors—the homey pizzeria is a neighborhood joint. The tourist crowd seems to have largely ignored this place despite the line-up of celebrity-signed photos in the window and on the walls.

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The pizza menu is straightforward and probably hasn't changed since Arturo's opened in 1957. (The rest of the dance card consists of red-sauce Italian fare.) The fanciest toppings you'll find are lobster ($16 extra per pie) or artichoke hearts. Pizzas are relatively pricey, starting at $17 for a small plain pie (which is plenty for two people), $20 for a large.

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The pizza is serviceable. It's not about airy hole structure or crisp yet foldable crusts. It's not about the artfully charred crust you might find at some of the other coalers in the city. To me Arturo's has always been about meeting up with friends and not thinking too hard about the pies, all while you enjoy each other's company. That is to say, if you are concerned with the best pizza in the city, you might be better off at nearby Kesté or Forcella (if you're looking for Neapolitan) or Joe's (if you're looking for a solid NYC-style slice).

But it's good if you have a large party to seat and want to avoid some of the more trafficked pizzerias.

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For some reason, I thought I remembered the meatball pizza drawing recommendations. As at many pizzerias that serve meatball pies, they're applied sliced. Which for me sort of defeats half the purpose of a meatball pizza. It's fun when a pie comes with small globes of meat on it. The meatballs on a recent pie we ate there were overdone.

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We couldn't resist the "Arturo's Fiesta" pizza (above, right) as it seemed to be the house pie—sausage, peppers, mushroom, and onion. It's exactly the kind of pizza you expect in a place that's been around since the '50s. Real pizza parlor pizza.

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And the Fiesta was good, in a satisfying supreme-pizza sorta way. But the pie our group of five reached consensus on as the best was the simple mushroom pizza (above). Maybe that's because it was the wettest of the trio we ordered.

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Which brings me to the thing I've always thought hobbles Arturo's pies: The crust is too dry. Too chewy. Not flexible. It breaks before it bends.

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I find myself leaving the "pizza bones."

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But you come to Arturo's for the atmosphere. The worn leather booths. The paintings on the wall done by the late Arturo Giunta himself. The kooky decor. The nightly jazz.

Yes, you should know that Arturo's is also a venue for live music. A piano takes up prime space in the bar room, and jazz trios entertain patrons. No surprise. This is the Village, after all.

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This is the kind of charm that can't be manufactured. It's the New York of old. Which is why it's surprising (and refreshing) that tourists have not caught on to this place.

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The charm extends to the thoughtful way they use baker's twine to secure the pizza box. I only wish I craved the contents of the box a little more.

Arturo's

106 West Houston Street, New York NY 10012 (at Thompson; map)
212-677-3820

About the author: Adam Kuban is the founder of Slice, where he has been blogging about pizza for more than 8 years. You can follow him on Twitter @akuban.

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