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New York's Artichoke Basille Pizza: Why The Controversy?

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Last week I wrote a quick, off-the-cuff post in defense of Artichoke Basille's pizza after another blogger posted a pretty unapologetic take-down of their slices. The New York three-location mini-chain seems to inspire quite a bit of passion on both sides of the spectrum.

On the one hand, are the lines. On any given weekend, you can hit the shop expecting to see a crowd snaking out the door, particularly in the post-drinking hours between 11pm and 3am or so. Head there for lunch and you'll see a steady stream of both regulars and out-of-towners who've simply heard about their massive cream-and-artichoke laden slices.

On the other hand, there are those who claim the pizza is not worth the hype.

Our friend Paulie Gee of Paulie Gee's pizzeria in Greenpoint takes issue with the often blackened underbelly:

Oh how I wish those slices were "slightly charred"

Regular Slice'r John Wozniak is even less apologetic with his opinion of the folks who patronize Artichoke:

Plain and simple Artichoke is bad pizza for people that patronize places like Momofuku—they go so they can feel hip and in the know (and are amongst their own kind)... By all means, please wait on line for at best mediocre pizza. I won't get in your way.

Even our own Adam Kuban has this to say:

I can't even recall the last time I've been able to fold a slice of Artichoke Basille's plain pie. It's crisp and stiff from the rim to about halfway into the pie, then the center is just soggy. Most of the time when I try to pick it up, it just breaks in half. Which is why I hardly ever get a plain regular slice there.

At Slice we're not ones to throw around judgement without due diligence and back up, so In the interest of TRUTH (and a opinion), I decided to revisit Artichoke to re-assess their entire pizza menu, top to bottom. In the interest of thoroughness, I visited multiple times—at 11AM when the first round pies are coming straight out of the oven, at noon when the first square pies emerge, and again in the mid-afternoon when a re-heat is necessary on your slices.

At no point did I have to wait on any kind of line at the West Village location. Indeed, as someone who's only once been to Artichoke after 10pm, I can say that only once have I ever had to wait on line there.

Let's break down the pies.

The Margherita Slice ($4)

I'm conflicted here. As a born-and-raised New Yorker used to a relatively thin and tender crust with just a hint of crispness on the bottom and a soft, pliant chew, it's hard to get behind Artichoke's crust. It starts with a layer of crispness that's a good 1/16th of an inch thick. Thick enough that it doesn't just crunch when you bite or fold it, it outright shatters like a cracker. This doesn't bode well for those who like to fold-and-go.

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That said, this is not the type of slice you'd fold-and-go with anyway; It's too hefty, saucy, and cheesy, weighing in at 1.5 to 2 times the average NY slice. A lot of that bulk is in the remainder of the crust which is quite a bit chewier than normal. The cloesest analogy I can give is that it has the eating qualities of a rustic Italian bread with a thick crust and chewy crumb. It's not really like any other pizza I know.

Saucewise, we're in good territory. Bright, fresh, tomatoey, and lightly chunky, it has that great naturally sweet and acidic balance you look for in good tomatoes, accented by not much more than salt, olive oil, and a few whole basil leaves. Similarly, the cheese is top notch. It starts with a base layer of aged mozzarella mixed with Parmigiano Reggiano. After it comes out of the oven, it gets a sprinkle of roughly grated Pecorino Romano. The one-two punch of hard cheeses makes the slice salty, but I like a salty pie. Honestly, I don't know any slice joint in New York using a cheese combo of this caliber other than DiFara.

Now, I can easily see how a New Yorker could look down on this slice. And that's because it's not a New York slice. However, I personally find it pretty delicious. I've done pizza walking tours with non-New Yorkers (who thus don't have a New York pizza bias), more than one of whom have said Artichoke's Margherita was the best they tasted.

Between a fresh pie and a re-heated slice, I found that the reheated slice verged into too-tough territory, which probably explains the inconsistency problem. Get a fresh slice from a pie out of the oven, and it's great. But get a re-heated slice, and you'll be chewing for a long time.

The Crab Slice ($4.50)

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It's an odd one. The crab tastes fresh (not canned/pasteurized), which is a very good thing, and there are some nicely seasoned crunchy breadcrumbs on top. Seafood and cheese occupies the same shelf on my goes-well-together list as tuna fish and peanut butter (that is, they don't), but given that bias, I'm strangely un-disgusted by this slice.

The crust is the same thick, crunchy guy the Margherita gets. It's almost like a crab cake smooshed onto a pizza. My wife would dig it.

The Artichoke Slice ($4.50)

Ah, the eponymous artichoke slice. The stuff of late night drunk/high out-of-towners' dreams. It's a stick of butter and a few quarts of cream thickened and dropped onto an extra-thick pizza crust (even thicker than the standard), with some perfunctory slices of artichoke thrown in for... for whatever reason.

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As the Artichoke Aficionado himself says, "not enough ARTICHOKE!"

I'm pretty sure that this is the slice he-who-must-not-be-named was referring to in his rant, but he couldn't (or more accurately, quite rudely wouldn't) be reached for comment, so I'm not sure.

I'm with the haters on this one. It's sloppy, over-the-top in a not-good way, and sickness-inducing. I ate a bite, felt like retching, and brought the rest back to the office, where it sat, slowly congealing for the rest of the afternoon.

The Meatball Slice ($4.50)

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Adam Kuban would immediately take issue with this slice, as the meatballs are entirely disassembled and scattered (Adam likes his meatballs whole). But the flavor is there. It has a deeper, richer sauce cooked down with onions like a good Sunday gravy. It reminds me a lot of eating a meat lasagna, but in crunchy, holdable form. As we mentioned in a recent Daily Slice post, "if oily, rich, and filling while being plenty flavorful is what you're looking for, it'll do you just fine.

The Best For Last: The Grandma Slice ($4)

This is the star in their stable of actors. The one to get if you are only going to visit once.

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To me, the grandma slice, when fresh out of the oven, is one of the great slices in New York. Saturated in olive oil (they use a combination of pomace olive oil to grease the pan and extra-virgin to finish off the pies) with plenty of that same great sweet, fresh sauce and a ton of flavorful cheese, it bakes for a good 40 minutes or so, during which time the bottom fries into a crisp, golden brown slab, pockmarked with splotches of cheese that have managed to slip under and crunch up.

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The crust edges are dark. Very dark. Warning: If blackened spots on your crust are not your thing, then you will not like this slice. If, on the other hand, you enjoy the flavor of crunchy, crusty, charred-to-oblivion cheese like I do, then you will be in grandma-slice heaven.

As with the regular slices, the same caveat applies: you must get this slice fresh out of the oven. I returned for a reheated slice and it was dry to the point of nearly hurting my teeth when I bit into it.

Figuring this out makes me think that the DiFara comparison that some have made is not so far off. DiFara's makes similar, long-cooked, heavy on cheese and olive oil pies, except at DiFara, you never get a re-heated slice. It's virtually impossible with a single man making all the pizza.

At Artichoke, on the other hand, they swing the balance in favor of volume. As a result, at any given moment there's a good chance you'll get a reheated slice. My advice: wait for a fresh pie to come out of the oven and eat it, post haste.

Perhaps even the long-time haters will be willing to give it another shot and report back?


About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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