Francis Garcia and Sal Basille were at the bank the other day, when they heard a woman say, “Hey! Pizza Cuz!” They were floored – it was the first, and so far the only, time they’ve been recognized by anyone who isn’t a regular at Artichoke Basille’s Pizza in New York.
They’d better get used to it.
The Staten Island-born first cousins are the newest faces on Cooking Channel as they travel around the county in search of great pizza on their new show, “Pizza Cuz.”
It’s not easy to impress any New Yorker with pizza made outside of the five boroughs, but Fran and Sal have found some mighty tasty pies already, and the show is only two episodes old.
“A lot of people think pizza is a little sauce, some cheese… but it’s way more than that,” Fran told me in an interview this week. “Pizza is an entire culture.”
“Even pizza men are an entire culture,” Sal added. “They stand in these little kitchens, a 500-degree oven right under their nose…”
In the show’s premiere episode, the cousins travel to Pizzaiolo in Oakland, California, where chef-owner Charlie Hallowell made them a pizza smothered in homemade sausage and, well, nettles.
“I didn’t even know what nettles were,” Fran said. “I had to Google them before the show. Stinging nettles – they’re medicinal, they use them for all kinds of things. But I wasn’t too thrilled about having to eat them.”
Fortunately for Fran and Sal, the cooking process removes the stinging chemicals in nettles, and they have a flavor that’s similar to spinach. The cousins agreed they make a good pizza topping.
“It was really delicious,” Fran said. “I was surprised how good they were.”
“I felt great after I’d eaten them,” Sal joked. “My tennis elbow was completely cured.”
Sal and Fran are no strangers to a wide variety of pizza toppings – their no-holds-barred artichoke pizza, dubbed a “foodgasm” by one Urban Spoon reviewer, has a 20-ingredient sauce and has become a New York pizza standard. But even these pioneering pizza dudes were wowed by what they’ve found since they started filming their show.
Fran’s favorite so far was an Indian pizza they had at Zante in San Francisco, where the chefs make a crust infused with turmeric, then add a spinach curry base with tandoori chicken, babaganoush, curried cauliflower, curried garlic, cilantro and mozzarella cheese.
“It was phenomenal,” Fran said “It was excellent. It was one of my favorites we’ve tried so far.”
Sal said he favored the clam pizza they had at Pizzeria Pico, in Larkspur, California.
“The chef goes clam farming for the fresh clams he puts on his pizza, and it’s just delicious,” he said.
The ends of the shows find the boys back in New York, working on their own creations. They’ve become fixtures in the New York pizza scene, and Artichoke Basille’s now has four locations: the original in the East Village, one in Chelsea, one in Greenwich Village and one at LaGuardia. If watching the cousins on their show hadn’t been enough to convince me they are serious about pizza, our conversation about it would have.
“I think America eats more pizza than anything else,” Fran said. “I’m amazed it took someone so long to produce a show that was just about pizza. There are something like 55,000 pizzerias across the U.S., and that’s not counting restaurants that serve pizza and other things too. There are so many different, unique styles of pizza out there. Pizza is just a blank canvas, an edible plate, that allows us to sell great food at a low price.”
The cousins admit that no matter where they travel, and no matter how amazing the pizza is they sample on their journeys, New York pizza is still king. They’re considering doing a pizza school, to teach people how to make a New York-style pizza at home. But if you can’t wait for that, if you want an Artichoke Basille’s pizza, say, right now, you can find them frozen at 500 grocery stores.
They’re also working on a cookbook that will be released soon. Called “Staten Italy,” the boys told me it features the kind of Italian food that flavored their childhoods on Staten Island. You won’t find stuffy, formal, old-world Italian recipes here that take imported ingredients, 12 hours and two Italian grandmothers to recreate. What you will find is real food, the kind Sal and Fran said their mothers would make on busy weeknights.
“It’s a refreshing cookbook for people to see what native New Yorkers who don’t live in Manhattan eat,” Fran said. “We wanted to put something out there there’s not high end, frou-frou stuff, it’s genuine.”
The cousins have an easy rapport, and are clearly very close.
“We’re first cousins, but we grew up more like brothers, like best friends,” Fran said. “There are people in my family I wouldn’t open a lemonade stand with, but me and Sal have a great relationship. I trust him.”
They live in a brownstone – Fran on the third floor, Sal on the fourth. In the mornings, Fran walks out his door, bangs on the wall and yells “Hey, Sal!” They have breakfast together, and when the coffee’s gone, they get to work.
“We’ve always loved what we do, and now we’re doing a TV show too,” Fran said. “I still can’t quite believe it, you know? We’re flying all over the country, trying the best pizza out there, and we’re having a blast. I must have done something really good in another life to be so blessed.”
“We were always going to other pizzerias to check out what they were doing,” Sal added. “When Cooking Channel came to us and said they wanted to do a show about pizza and they wanted us to host it, it was a dream come true.”
It’s a dream Fran said he still hasn’t quite woken up from.
“We never wanted to be on TV,” Fran said. “We never even thought about it. We’re pizza guys. When they came to us about the show, we were like, ‘You want US?’ And now look! We’re doing the Tonight Show with Jay Leno this week, and Howie Mandel is the other guest. It’s all just so unreal. I still don’t believe it.”
“Pizza Cuz” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Cooking Channel. You can also read Fran and Sal’s blog on how to make New York-style pizza at home on CookingChanneltv.com.