We stopped by the boys’ original location on E. 14th Street to chat about new ventures and learn how to make their eponymous slice (dough + a hearty helping of spinach cream sauce + pecorino romano + artichokes + mozzarella). Despite begging and pleading, the guys wouldn’t divulge the secret behind the creamy, savory sauce, but we did get to taste their new onion pie with vodka sauce. It’ll only be a matter of time until our next 2 AM craving strikes.
Zagat: Five years in, it seems like the popularity of Artichoke Basille’s hasn’t calmed down. Why do you think that is?
Francis: We have staying power because of our product. You can’t fake hype for five years. People won’t come back if they don’t like it, but they keep coming back for the product. It’s definitely not the decor they come back for!
Zagat: What inspired the artichoke slice? Why did you choose that to be your defining slice?
Francis: I’m fat and I love to eat and that’s what inspired it. I started giving it in the bread basket at my mom’s restaurant in 2006, and people would flip out asking to order it. I thought I could give it to more people in Manhattan in two weeks than I could in Brooklyn, and it just exploded in our face. We’ve been blessed.
Zagat: People seem to be pretty divided over whether or not they like the artichoke slice. How do you respond to naysayers?
Francis: We let the pizza talk. You can’t say anything bad about something people will wait half an hour in line for. More than 50% of our sales is the artichoke slice.
Zagat: Seems like Francis got the raw end of the deal. Why is it Artichoke Basille’s and not Artichoke Garcia’s?
Francis: Maybe if we had been selling artichoke tacos it would be Artichoke Garcia’s. But no, we already had the restaurant Basille’s established in Staten Island, and we thought it would be good for that restaurant, too.
Zagat: Any plans for expansion in or out of NYC?
Francis: We’re opening in Resorts World Casino by the Aqueduct Racetrack. The casino’s killing it; it’s packed. The food court has Stage Deli, Subway and Popeyes, and in June it will have an Artichoke’s. We’re putting a fire escape on top of it to make it look like this [E. 14th St.] location.
We’ve had a few Vegas deals that fell through the cracks, but we’re going to revisit a downtown Vegas deal. We’ve also talked to restaurant groups in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but no one we were comfortable doing a deal with. We want to do it right, and right now I feel like I have to be able to get to any of our locations in an hour. We’re very hands on, but eventually we’ll do the West Coast.
Zagat: How did the show come about? Tell me about it.
Sal: We got approached a year ago - the day my daughter Sophie was born - that we were going to meet about a show. We met with the producer, and he liked us.
Francis: They had done a pilot called “Pizza Outside of the Box,” and the network loved it. They wanted to run more and felt like they needed a host. We had been approached before for a reality show, but it didn’t enhance our brand. This interested us right away though, and we hit it off, and here we are.
Sal: It’s something we already do on our days off - try other pizza.
Zagat: What was your favorite stop?
Francis: I really did enjoy every place we went to, but if I had to pick one I’d say Cheese Board in Berkeley. It’s a collective; there’s no owner or boss so everyone is equal. It’s real hippie stuff. They do one pizza a day - they go to the market and whatever they make a deal on, that’s what they make that day. They have jazz bands, and it’s just like electricity pulling people off the street.
Sal: I liked Picco in Larkspur, California. The owner goes clam farming for his toppings, and we went clam farming with him. It was so delicious and fresh.
Zagat: Anything you found on the road that you want to bring back to NYC?
Francis: The Indian pizza at Zante in San Francisco. It was my favorite actual pizza. It’s a spinach curry base with tandoori chicken, babaganoush, curried cauliflower, curried garlic, lots of cilantro and mozzarella cheese. The dough has turmeric, so it’s yellow. The curry had a kick to it. It was excellent. It really defined pizza outside of the box.
New York is where it’s at for pizza, but I want to bring the Indian pizza back here. I exchanged numbers with the owner, and I’d love to do a pop up with him at one of our locations. Forget about different - it was just amazing. It was balanced perfectly and just really, really special.
Zagat: You’d think you wouldn’t have to travel the country to find the most interesting slices being here in NYC. Does NYC pizza need to step it up?
Francis: Well, we did go to Keste, Co and Forcella. New York is where it’s at for pizza. I’ve been to a bunch of different cities in America, but until we did this show, I didn’t realize pizza was so good outside New York.
Sal: But I do want to kick out the dollar pizza. They’re ruining pizza! It’s cheap. But there’s really good, different pizza outside of NY. I learned we can expand and would do well in lots of these cities.