A creamy, creamy Artichoke pie. Photo: Manger La Ville.
My early pizza education was doughy and disturbing. I cut my teeth on school-lunch cardboard rectangles crowned by pepperoni cubes, greasy deep-dish Pizza Hut pies and Papa John's floppy slices that I dunked in nuclear-yellow garlic butter. Further torturing my developing taste buds, my family's freezer was filled with heresies such as pizza bagels and frozen pies bought for a buck.
"What I wouldn't give for a slice of New York pizza," my mom would often say, her eyes looking toward her northeast hometown, far from the culinary wastelands of suburban Ohio. I'd nod in sympathy, if miscomprehension. To me, Pizza Hut was the cheesy pinnacle. It's hard to miss food you've never had.
But upon planting my flag in New York City, I began a pizza re-education that'd impress Chairman Mao. From DiFara's to Lombardi's, from buck-a-slice joints in Hell's Kitchen to each and every Ray's pizzeria, I soon understood my mom's longing for crunchy, pinkie-skinny pizza. Top a triangular slice with crushed red pepper, fold it in half and I had a low-cost lunch. Or dinner. Or the last, late-night line of defense to prevent a skull-hammering hangover.
From the safe perch of age and hindsight, I now consider my Pizza Hut days as misguided as the time I dyed my hair with household bleach. We learn from mistakes. We grow wiser and smarter. Yet a few weeks ago, I stupidly agreed to dine with my cheapskate friend Matt at Artichoke Basille's Pizza. "I have a Groupon. We get a large pie and four beers," he said, whispering words that appealed to my penny-pinching heart. "You're paying, right?" "Brother, I already paid." Bingo.
Ever since buddies Francis Garcia and Sal Basille opened their first pizzeria on East 14th Street in early 2008, Artichoke mania has gripped New York. The fervor has been fueled by the namesake artichoke slice, which is capped with a mess of mozzarella, pecorino Romano, spinach, artichoke hearts and cream sauce. To me, that sounds as appealing as an espresso enema. But I also have peculiar tastes, including spooning numbing chili-pepper sauce from a jar as if it were Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Who am I to judge?
Matt's Groupon was for the first sitdown branch of the rapidly expanding Artichoke chainlet (the third location is in the West Village), located on 10th Avenue and West 17th Street, within spitting distance of the High Line. We arrived at the Chelsea location at 6:45 p.m. on April 14. Hordes thronged the sidewalk surrounding Artichoke, as if Justin Bieber were performing inside.
"Matt, when does the Groupon coupon expire?" I asked. "Tomorrow," he said. Goddamn it, we were in the grips of Groupon Fever, a particularly irritating modern disease: So driven are customers to use their dining discount before it expires that they'll gladly queue for an hour or two. I despise waiting to dine. There are too many terrific restaurants in this town to ever waste time in line, tapping toes and fingering iPhones.
"Do you really want to wait?" I asked Matt. "I want to use my Groupon," he said, twirling his mustache petulantly. So we waited. Twenty minutes dissolved into 40, which soon sludged into an hour. As my stomached growled, I watched as sheep-like diners ordered identical meals: large pies, with four golden beers. Few deviated. It was a restaurateur's nightmare—endless packs of pinchfist customers. I was pleased to see Artichoke packed, but why take a monetary bath to fill seats?
I gained more insight into Artichoke's Groupon deal when we finally sat to sup. We ordered our gratis pints of Coors Light and an artichoke pie. Soon, so very soon, it arrived on a metal pedestal like the king of a gooey kingdom. "Are we supposed to cut this or dip carrots into it?" I asked Matt, pointing at the gloppy swirl that passed for the topping. For this cheese-and–tomato sauce purist, the pie was pure heresy. "Just shut up and eat," he said. I tried. Lord, did I try. But it tasted akin to fire-singed concrete topped with Bloomberg-rich alfredo sauce. I felt like a Civil War soldier given a piece of cold hardtack and two choices: munch or starve.
I chose to eat. Though the meal was free, my poor stomach soon paid a hefty price.