“She wants to go somewhere with live music,” my partner told me, and my eyes widened in dismay. His parents were in town from Dhaka, where he grew up, and his mother Tulip’s birthday was in a few days. “I need your help. Where should we go?”
I was stumped. Dinner with an ensemble as the backdrop? There are jazz bars in Harlem and Greenwich Village. A pianist, Earl Rose, plays classical music uptown at Bemelmans. I’ve seen my friends’ indie bands perform in the back of Baby’s All Right, in Williamsburg. And yet New York City is no Nashville or New Orleans. The only idea I could conjure was of marveling over a saxophone while eating pulled pork and skillet mac and cheese at Blue Smoke’s underground club, Jazz Standard. We could go there, I offered. But it would require purchasing tickets to the show that was scheduled for the evening, with a group we knew nothing about.
Other limitations followed. It shouldn’t be fancy, or too expensive, or hard to get a reservation at (we didn’t have much time). I began to research, but nothing hit the right notes until I came upon Arturo’s. That’s right, I thought.
Arturo’s is a coal-oven pizzeria on the border of the Village and SoHo. It’s where, pre-COVID, a piano holds court in the front room, adjacent to the bar, and jazz musicians congregate to play live music every night. When I was a kid I had my birthday there at least once, possibly twice. I understood then what I still hold to be true: pizza and chocolate cake are all you need to have a great birthday. The decision was made.
This is not the same Arturo’s as the Upper East Side Italian joint founded in 1982—although that’s the place that’ll come up first if you Google the name. This is the Arturo’s on Houston Street that’s been firing pies and dishing spaghetti and meatballs since 1957. They do not have a website or an Instagram handle, not even a Facebook page. All they have is a 212 number and a presence on Postmates. I rang them to see if I could reserve a table and they told me what’s always been the case—no reservations on weekends. That’s right, I remembered.
I wondered if the waits were still notoriously long, which made my partner nervous, but I assured him it would be fine. I would leave work early that Friday and put our names down while he went and fetched his parents from their hotel in Midtown. Before I hung up, I asked if I could bring a cake for a birthday. Of course, the host said. My next call was to Mah-Ze-Dahr, the West Village bakery whose proprietor Umber Ahmad makes my favorite chocolate cake. It’s called the Devil in Ganache and tastes like a grown-up, from-scratch version of a Duncan Hines box cake with frosting.
I arrived to a jovial scene and a wait time of only 15 minutes. It was summertime and some patrons were seated outside. As a server relieved the cake from my hands, I hoped they’d remember to bring it out come dessert. The restaurant was packed with families and couples, a mix of locals and tourists. When we were seated in the back room, separated by a wall from the piano, my face started to heat up. Would we even be able to hear the music? I glanced at Tulip, who appeared to be making the same realization.
The real gut punch was the pizza, which was not bad nor special. The crust was a bit too thick and a tad too crunchy, and it lacked the depth of flavor I’ve come to crave thanks to newer heavy hitters, namely F&F and Leo. The sauce was bland compared to the tangy tomato smack I recall from my childhood. My taste buds have probably evolved, I shrugged. Tulip seemed to be enjoying her food and having a good time, which is all that mattered.
As we were wrapping up our mains, I excused myself to use the bathroom so I could remind the server about the cake and was swiftly assured that they were on it.
Within moments, the candlelit Devil in Ganache was placed on our table as four older men, all members of Arturo’s staff, circled around, bursting into the most passionate rendition of happy birthday I’d heard in years. As I watched Tulip’s eyes glow with cheer, my longtime fondness for the old-school pizzeria suddenly came into focus.
Restaurants are where we go to be taken care of for an anniversary, and where we go to revel in buzzing atmospheres when we’re turning 12 or 59.
In a city like New York, there are endless possibilities for ringing in a special occasion, and each one of them brings their own personality to our milestones. There’s the glass of bubbly on the house at the hot new pasta spot, a delicate dance of courses throughout a fine dining experience, or that streaming shot of tequila down your throat surrounded by friends and tableside guac.
At Arturo’s, a birthday dinner of pizza and cake makes you feel like a kid again.
I walked by Arturo’s the other day to see how they’re faring in the pandemic. There were a handful of sidewalk tables on Houston Street, and a manager was leaning on the railing outside the entrance, underneath the tomato sauce-red awning. I asked him if there’s been live jazz at night.
“They’ve been coming by to play still, the musicians. Not every night, but most nights,” he told me, explaining that the crew sets up inside around the piano as per usual, and then they open the doors and windows so that patrons dining al fresco can hear the music.
Arturo’s is still open, 63 years and counting. And in a city full of pizzerias, it’s the only place you can share a pie over live jazz.
Arturo’s: 106 W Houston St., at Thompson. (212) 677-3820