Little Jazz: Arturo’s

I arrived at Arturo’s Pizza at exactly the right moment. A seat opened up at the end of the bar and the trio of piano, bass, and drums had just started a new set. I swooped in, sat down, and ordered a glass of wine. Besides the one I filled, there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. Groups of 4, 5, and 6 squeezed into the dining room’s booths and made room as the servers brought out piping hot brick oven pizzas. The bar was mostly occupied by single folks like myself checking out the band and making conversation with the bartender. I took out my  notebook and started jotting down some observations about the place.

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Aspidistras hung next to wooden models of WWII era war planes (I wondered if this wasn’t a bit of a nod to Orwell.) Photographs of  familiar scenes of  Italian family meals  crowded the walls as well and of course one of Mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia. But that’s about as far as I got before the bartender, who later introduced himself as Tony, asked if I was a reporter.

“Kind of,” I said, and explained the project.

“You gotta meet Frankie Sticks then,” he said and pointed to the drummer.

“Sure!” I said.

While I waited for Frankie to finish his set, Tony told me a bit about his years at Arturo’s Pizza where he’d been tending bar since 1991. He started as part time, but in 1997 the previous full time bartender passed away, at which point Tony was promoted. His predecessor, however, still watches over all of Tony’s shifts from the urn where his ashes are enshrined above the bar. I turned to my neighbor to confirm.

“Yep,” he shrugged.

If it’s true, than Arturo’s must have been like family to him, which would make sense. All the people I met that evening had been coming to Arturo’s for ten years or more and some had been living in the Village for even longer. One lived around the block, evidently next door to Tony, and started telling him about how a resident in his building called 311 about the construction noise from a new building going up across the street, not an uncommon complaint these days, and one that says a lot about how the neighborhood is changing.

Arturo’s is on Greenwich Village’s southernmost border on the corner of West Houston and Thompson Street. While the Village on the whole wasn’t particularly Italian when Arturo’s opened in 1957, the 10 square blocks around Arturo’s were. Over 3,000 of the area’s 8,000 residents were born in Italy and a fair bit more identified Italian as their heritage. Opening an Italian restaurant made perfect sense to Arturo Giunta who borrowed $3,000 from his father to get the place going.

From the start Arturo’s was a neighborhood restaurant and remains so to this day. If the bar crew of old timers isn’t enough evidence, I refer you to the New York Daily News’ obituary of Honey, Arturo’s extra fluffy Bichon Frise. According to the article, Honey hosted lavish birthday parties on the sidewalk outside the restaurant which included pizza for the human guests and treats for the canine attendees. Eventually, her parties got so unwieldy that they had to be moved to the park across the street. Which is all to say, if Arturo’s dog meant so much to this little Italian enclave, imagine how much the restaurant means.

Jazz was part of Arturo’s from the outset as well. Arturo’s wife Betty, a singer at the Amato Opera, sang show tunes at the restaurant just for the hell of it. Famed piano player and Roberta Flack’s music manager Harry Whitaker was also an early fixture who played 5 nights a week for 5 years.

But the neighborhood and its surrounding area have been changing since Arturo’s opened, and especially in the past decade. New luxury apartment buildings are going up every day it would seem. The median income in the area immediately surrounding Arturo’s hasn’t changed much in the past 10 years, but this may be due to the NYU faculty and student housing included in its census tract. However, in the areas bordering Arturo’s to the north, south, east, and west, median incomes increased by about $20,000 between 2000 and 2013. And therein lies the  311 complaint. What was once a middle class neighborhood is now becoming an upper class  neighborhood.

At any rate, Frankie Sticks, whose real last name I found out is Levatino, finished his set. He’d been eyeing my pen and paper from behind his drum kit and came right over. To say the least, Frankie is full of energy, and he’d have to be as the house drummer for the past 14 years. (Staying around for awhile seems to be a common occurrence at Arturo’s.) Right away he launched into the history of Arturo’s and his own storied past. Apparently, he’s been playing jazz off and on since 1959 with short stints in rock and roll and even disco bands. Among other great jazz musicians he’s played with are clarinetist Kenny Davern, trumpeter Warren Vache, and trombonist Benny Powell. An impressive roster to say the least.

Born in Manhattan, Frankie’s been living in Greenwich Village for 15 years, during which time it’s changed a lot. (The bar grumbled an affirmative.) It used to be, he said, that anyone could live in the Village. But, just as we got to talking, he was called away for a second set. In the meantime, my dinner had arrived and Tony poured me another glass of wine. I settled in but wasn’t expecting what happened next.

One of the waiters, Jimmy Lategano, to be exact, took a break from dropping off pizza and picked up the mic. This is what happened.

So, with that little miracle, I’ll sign off until next time when I’ll meet you at Mezzrow. (Thanks for the suggestion Frankie!)

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