Most big office complexes have a cafe in the bowels of the building. Often, this place is a convenient dispensary of sad desk lunches. It’s a place where blah turkey sandwiches are slapped together and served beneath buzzing fluorescent lights. There’s nothing like a basket of bruised apples and bananas next to the cash register to impel a hasty retreat back to work.
In contrast, Atwoods Pizza Cafe, though it lives in the historic Biltmore’s basement (and building signage dresses up the location by calling it the “arcade level”), is a source of pure happiness.
For this, I credit both the cafe being in Midtown, where the density of good food per square foot seems to increase every few months, and the exuberance of Atwoods chef Rob Phillip.
How else to explain naming a summery delight of a white pie the Googootz, without caring that very few customers will know what that term means? (Google says it’s both slang for the zucchini-like cucuzza squash and Tony Soprano’s pet name for his son.)
Or keeping bone-broth chicken soup on the menu during the sizzling summer just because Phillip so believes in its golden healing powers?
Rather than lunchroom basic, Atwoods’ decor is industri-adorable, with brick walls, high butcher block tables, a cozy bevy of steel stools and unexpected film homages. Instead of the usual “The Godfather” poster, a glass panel printed with the clever bumpkins from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” glows above the drink dispenser.
The evening I went to Atwoods, the food was the wittiest element of all, from a trendy Mississippi pot roast sandwich to build-your-own-pie toppings like fennel oil, rapini and preserved lemon.
That said, I have to warn you: Much of the deliciousness I’m bursting about here is about to change, as Atwoods’ menu is streamlined and altered.
“We have to remind ourselves and everyone that, primarily, we are a pizzeria,” Phillip explained.
That means, for instance, that Atwoods’ sandwich offerings will be pared from six to four, and instead of being stacked on sourdough and French bread, they’ll all use house-made puccia (pizza dough) rolls.
On the breakfast menu, that same pizza dough will be fried into donuts, with honey-mascarpone butter for dipping.
That luscious, but laborious, pot roast will be taken out of the running, and pesto-as-pizza-sauce will be added.
So, take the following descriptions as an enticement — a promise of loving, inventive treatment of fine, local ingredients; of a mammoth imported pizza oven that turns out supple, char-edged crusts; and of a condiments shelf stocked with the usual pepper flakes and parm, as well as Calabrian chile paste, Romano cheese and honey, which is shockingly delicious when drizzled onto a garlicky slice, by the way.
Of course, the Googootz white pizza has to be addressed, even though it’s on its way out. (Phillip said old favorites still can be made on request.)
This pizza was basically a warm, summer salad arrayed on a crisp crust. Sweet, thin zucchini slices nested next to creamy blobs of ricotta cream, along with mozzarella and fior di latte. The pie was dappled with a bit of mint, a spritz of lemon and dabs of sweet, fragrant garlic confit.
It was the subtle but bright mint and sparkly lemon that made me fall in love. They were little details that elevated the Googootz from a good pie to a crusty work of art.
The same could be said of the dear departed pot roast sandwich, called the South of Philly. It overflowed with ridiculously tender, juicy beef and an immense pile of perfectly caramelized onions. But all that soothing comfort food demanded an edge, and this sandwich got it from pickled pepper aioli and pepperoncini.
A pie that will remain at Atwoods is the red-sauced Festival, which features those sweet, tender dollops of caramelized onion and garlic confit along with nibbles of mild fennel sausage. True to form, Phillip throws in a wake-up call in the form of spicy, fruity red peppadew.
Even basics tend to have a special element here. The perfectly dressed Caesar salad, for instance, has kale thrown in with the romaine and croutons that are airy, crisp and fruity with olive oil, instead of the usual overdried molar rattlers.
Don’t be too concerned with how the new Atwoods menu compares with the old one. Have faith in this chef’s passion, his ingredients, and his inventiveness.
And, if you work upstairs in the Biltmore, be kind to refugees from other office buildings. Not everyone’s lucky enough to have such a joyful dining spot in their basement.