Lunch wasn’t that big and dinner was not set to begin until 7:30pm - in a day that began with a 7 mile run at 4:30am before hopping a plane to New York at 8:00 there was clearly room for a mid-day snack or two. With art browsing the order of the day and four hours and myriad galleries now separating me from lunch my first ancillary stop would be Billy’s Bakery – a spot I’d omitted on my previous visits but re-targeted for this trip based largely on their business model and reviews from a pair of trusted palates.
To be fair, Billy’s had me at hello – with slogans including “We use only the freshest, highest-quality ingredients in our baked goods, including real butter, whole eggs, and fresh fruit and nuts. We don’t use preservatives in any of our products” and “Classic old fashioned American baked goods made from scratch and served in a warm, friendly atmosphere” it seemed the original shop on 9th was a can’t miss for one of my New York traditions – the cupcake.
Entering the small shop I was first taken at the small size and expected smells of cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, and butter – my guess as to what heaven smells like. With no less than 6 folks mixing, rolling, stirring, and chatting I stood and browsed for a bit before a well tattooed and pierced young lady approached with a mumbled “what can I get you.” While I’m not so sure she was warm or friendly, she was capable of extracting two cupcakes from the case, bagging them, and collecting my $7 before returning to her work in back.
Taking to the street and heading east my first taste of Billy’s would be my standard – the red velvet. Soft and moist without suffering from super-sizing I will note that the three bites were all quite tasty as the smooth cocoa tones of the cake balanced with the creamy and mildly citrus tinged cream cheese frosting. Neither gritty nor overly sweet this to me represented an ideal “classic” red velvet and while not as good as Two Little Red Hens or Bouchon’s classic takes it was quite good.
The second selection would prove to be the better of the two – in this case one of the better cupcakes I’ve ever had. Simply titled “carrot cake” this cupcake was similar in size to the Red Velvet but literally weighed twice as much – to say it was loaded with carrots would be an understatement. Heterogeneous in texture with notes of cinnamon, coconut, pineapple, and pecan blending with the grated carrots the body of the cake proved an ample match to the same cream cheese frosting that topped the Red Velvet.
Continuing my eastward path the next stop on the culinary map was Artichoke Basille's, a choice that some said was not worth the hassle and others hailed as one of the best slice’s in New York. Regardless of the reviews I fully admit to having been quite neglectful of the New York Pizza scene on past visits and lacking dining partners to experience places only offering a full pie (Keste, Motorino, Co, and all those in Brooklyn) it seemed like a excellent choice for me – especially considering its location in the East Village where people watching, music browsing, and kitschy shopping abound.
Arriving at the small shop started by two brothers in 2008 I must admit I was surprised – the place looks like it could have been there for 50 years. With a short line of 5 ahead of me I made my way into the shop only to realize that all things being equal, 5 was probably the maximum capacity for the waiting area. With a small menu posted on the wall and three pizzas behind the glass case I stood and watched the process for a bit before the young man behind the counter yelled (over Nine Inch Nails “Ringfinger”) “what can I get ya.” One slice of the Artichoke and Spinach – “right on, man” – I felt like a regular.
With the last of the Artichoke and Crab slices having been ordered up by the pair in front of me it would be a mere 5 minutes and $4 while listening to Trent Reznor before my slice would arrive – blistering hot and still bubbling – on a pair of paper plates. Grabbing a napkin and making my way outside the line was now 9 long and I sat down on the curb next to a pair of college kids eating their slices. Assuming the slice now safe enough to eat I took a bite and what greeted my taste buds can only be described as a “wow” moment. Creamy and garlic laden yet ripe with the lovely flavor of artichoke and earthy spinach the top layers gave way to a crust undoubtedly imbued with cornmeal (and perhaps an unknown addictive substance) that was crunchy yet supple with an excellent crumb. While certainly not a “traditional” slice by any stretch, I instantly understood the rumors of hour plus lines at midnight – I’d stand in line for this pizza just like I did for Great Lake – purportedly the “best pizza in America.”