Staten Island is frequently referred to as the Forgotten Borough of NYC. Pizza Masters hosts, Artichoke Basille’s Pizza (328 East 14th Street; 212-228-2004) owners, and Staten Island natives Francis Garcia and Sal Basille are trying to change that with their recently released book, Staten Italy: Nothin’ But the Best Italian-American Classics, From Our Block to Yours, wherein they explore their ascent to culinary stardom through the lens of their Italian family, childhood in the restaurant industry, and lives on the island.
“We wanted to be able to document our history and all our recipes and everything else,” says Basille. “We really love Staten Island. It’s a great place to grow up. We have a lot of friends there we talk to every single day. We want to honor Staten Island and give people something honest.”
Cousins, best friends, and business partners, Garcia and Basille grew up in the restaurant industry. Both of their parents owned multiple restaurants throughout their lives, and both started working in the industry as soon as they were old enough. They always knew that they would follow the path of the family business, but they never thought they’d reach the level of fame that they have with their legendary Artichoke Basille’s Pizza. Less than two weeks after opening their first location in 2008, the pair received a three-star review in New York magazine, consequently resulting in lines around the block. They remember it like it was yesterday; Garcia and Basille were making dough and cutting cheese when they noticed lines forming at the door. “I was like, ‘Why are they standing there, Sal? Did you tell them we’re closed?’ ” says Garcia. “Sal was like, ‘They’re going to wait.’ We didn’t even have dough ready yet and they would wait. It still blows our minds all the time when we think about it.”
Things only got crazier from there. They’ve since opened five additional locations, and they’ve garnered a roster of celebrity fans, including Keith Richards, Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Barrymore, Martin Scorsese, and, most notably, David Chang. Then they were recruited by the Cooking Channel as TV hosts for Pizza Masters.
The company is still very much a family-run business, though. Garcia’s mother keeps the books, and many of the employees have worked in the family restaurants for decades. Busboys have grown into managers. Many of the customers have known Garcia and Basille since they were kids working in the back of their parents’ eateries on Staten Island.
The tradition spans all the way back four generations; their great-grandfather, a pastry chef, owned a bakery in Red Hook back in the day, and their grandmother worked for him. When she married their grandfather, a longshoreman, she’d make sandwiches for him to sell out of the trunk of his car down at the docks. “They started making money with it,” says Garcia. “And then they probably opened their first restaurant, maybe in the mid- to late Thirties, maybe Forties, something like that.”
Both of their parents followed suit. Garcia’s mother and father owned nearly ten different restaurants. Basille’s parents probably had a dozen between Staten Island and New Jersey; his mother still owns one, Solo Bella, in Jackson, New Jersey.
While it was constant work and some of the concepts failed, for Garcia and Basille, growing up in the restaurant industry on Staten Island couldn’t have been sweeter. They lived in comfortable homes, always had nice cars, and knew everybody, including all the cops, which meant they rarely, if ever, received tickets. And they really felt like part of the community.
That’s not to say it wasn’t hard at times. When their friends would be heading out for New Year’s Eve, Garcia and Basille would be working. They celebrated holidays when the kids were younger, but as they got older Garcia, Basille, and the entire family would be at the eateries. Both of them began working six or seven days a week around the age of seventeen. But it also gave them the experience and the confidence to open their own business. “When I reflect on it now, we’re blessed,” says Garcia. “It’s hard to teach people in culinary school how to run a restaurant. You can teach them how to cook, how to be a great cook and everything, but growing up in it, it taught us a lot.”
Even with all the experience, when they wanted to open in Manhattan, their parents told them they were crazy. They were told the rents are too high, there are too many pizza joints, you’re going to lose all your money. But Basille and Garcia knew they had something different to bring to the table. They’d spent countless nights partying in the city, and they knew the pizza scene had a long way to go in terms of catching up to Brooklyn and Staten Island. With a little bit of money, a lot of help from friends, and their grandfather’s toolbox, they decided to go for it. “We used to have fights,” says Garcia. “My mother, she’d say, ‘You think you can do business in Manhattan?’ And I’d say, ‘Fuck yeah, we can. Pardon my language.’ ”
Since then, the city has seen a sort of pizza resurgence. From Michael White to Danny Meyer, celebrity chefs have been getting in the business. Garcia and Basille say they’d like to think they had something to do with it when they started putting prime ingredients like parmigiana reggiano, extra-virgin olive olive, fresh mozzarella, and high-quality tomatoes onto their pies.
With a wide selection of family recipes as well as some selections from the restaurant (including their famous cauliflower fritters and pies), Staten Italy tells the story of what it’s like growing up in an Italian restaurant family in the fifth borough. “There’s nothing pretentious, nothing fancy, just homespun stuff that we grew up eating in Staten Island,” says Garcia.
Garcia and Basille will be making an appearance at Barnes & Noble Staten Island (2245 Richmond Avenue) for a meet-and-greet and book-signing on Saturday, April 4, at 7 p.m.
Click to the next page for Artichoke Basille’s margherita pizza recipe.
Excerpted from the book STATEN ITALY by Francis Garcia and Sal Basille. © 2015 by Francis Garcia and Salvatore Basille. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Life and Style. All rights reserved.
People were always comin’ into Basille’s and asking for a “regular pie”. After a while, we just started callin’ it a Margherita because it was fashionable. Most Margherita pies are the Neapolitan style–fresh mozzarella, plum tomatoes, olive oil, and basil. No grated cheese or the American-style Polly-O mozzarella that we love so much at Artichoke. So when we opened our shop, we combined the traditional Margherita with our Staten Island-style pie. We blend Polly-O mozzarella with fresh mozzarella and add some Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino. If you talk to a pizza buff, they’ll argue that it’s not a real Margherita. But who ever wrote the book on that anyway?
To get the perfect Margherita pizza, follow our instructions on pages 120-23 (Making New York Pizzeria-Quality Pizza at Home). As for the cheese, you’ll need to find real whole-milk mozzarella, preferably Polly-O (the good stuff). You’re also going to need fresh mozzarella.
Parmigiano-Reggiano, and pecorino.
1 recipe Pizza Dough (pages 120-23),
proofed and prepped
10 ounces whole-milk mozzarella, preferably Polly-O (just buy a pound and use what you use), cut into 1-inch cubes
1 recipe Pizza Sauce (page 143)
1/4 cup grated pecorino
1 ball fresh mozzarella, cut or
torn into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Olive oil, for drizzling
Spread the dough into a round on your peel. Distribute the cubed mozzarella evenly over the dough and spread two 6-ounce ladlefuls of the sauce over the cheese. Start from the edge and create a bull’s-eye right up to the middle. Try to distribute it as evenly as possible. Sprinkle the pecorino evenly over the sauce, and arrange the fresh mozzarella on top of that. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until it looks like all the cheese has melted and started to brown. Finish with the Parmigiano-Reggiano and a drizzle of olive oil.
To make the dough, you’ll need:
1 tablespoon instant dry yeast
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for the bowl
1 cup warm water
3 1/2 cups high-gluten flour
All-purpose flour for coating your peel and work surface. In a large bowl, combine the yeast, salt, oil, and water. (The salt is gonna give it great taste and color and the oil provides the great texture.) Add the flour and mix it in by hand until the mixture forms a ball and looks smooth. Take the dough out of the bowl, grease the bowl with a little oil, then place the dough ball back in the bowl (the oil will keep it from sticking). Cover the bowl with a dishtowel or something else.
Makes About 2 1/2 Cups
Get a can of peeled Italian plum tomatoes–preferably Tuttoroso or Redpack, but California tomatoes are just as good. For one pizza, use a 20-ounce can. Pour the tomatoes into a bowl and smash them with your hands until they have the consistency of a chunky sauce. Add 3 pinches of salt and 1/4 cup olive oil. That’s it, plain and simple.