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The Restaurant Auteur

McNally in his kitchen at home.  

When Keith Mcnally is getting ready to open a new restaurant, he ritually professes that it will be his last. Six weeks before Pulino’s, his newest last restaurant, is to open, McNally, who is 58, is hurrying along the sidewalk on and Bowery, hair boyishly askew, wearing an unbuttoned, speckled tweed overcoat and an army-green cloth backpack. McNally spends a lot of time walking around, and his restaurants invariably start with a space he has seen. This spot he’s had his eye on for five years.

It’s a classic McNally project. On a corner, in a commercial, slightly gritty neighborhood, Pulino’s remixes a number of favored McNally design elements—checkerboard floor, chicken-wire glass, pressed-tin ceiling, bottle-lined walls, antique mirrors—with droll touches of Bowery Vernacular, including a couple of tables made out of blue police barricades stenciled don’t cross the line. Brick archways frame an open kitchen with two wood-fired ovens, where chef Nate Appleman, of The Next Iron Chef and San Francisco’s A16, will turn out thin, crispy, Romanesque pizzas and other wood-fired dishes.

McNally borrows a tape measure and checks the diameter of a table: 36 inches. He asks a workman to sit in the booth. “Is that the right size table for you?” McNally asks, in his North London accent. It’s a snug fit for four diners, but McNally thinks that could be a good thing. “If you’re with a very attractive woman, and she’s getting close to you, would you be upset?” he teases. McNally is constantly soliciting whoever’s nearby to tell him what they think. “He asks for a lot of opinions,” says Riad Nasr, co-chef at several of McNally’s restaurants, “but I think he knows the answers to most of them.”

McNally heads downstairs to the bathrooms, where, in a cheeky touch, a cloudy window separates the men’s and women’s bathrooms. He thinks the glass should be more transparent, and Kate Pulino, an art-history-trained McNally staffer who unwittingly gave her boss the name for his new restaurant, suggests a different type they can try. “If there was a woman in there,” McNally says, turning to another worker in the men’s room, “and she was really attractive, and she wanted to see you completely naked—I’m not saying this is ever going to happen … ” McNally walks from the men’s side to the women’s side, appearing as a dark, blurry form through the glass. “I don’t think I’ll be using the bathroom.”

McNally is restlessly attentive to the minutiae of his empire. “It’s a business that involves fretting all the time,” says hotelier André Balazs, “and he does it constantly and thoroughly and without respite.” When Millard (Mickey) Drexler, the CEO of J.Crew and a Balthazar breakfast regular, was having coffee uptown one day and saw a grubby Balthazar Bakery truck drive past, he shot McNally an e-mail. “I remembered that he hates when his trucks are dirty,” Drexler says. McNally was grateful, and distressed (reminded of the incident months later, he knits his brow and seems momentarily re-traumatized).

In the ramp-up to opening, Pulino’s has owned much of his attention. When its brick walls, during construction, got dust on them, McNally loved the look and had workers do three weeks of tests to figure out how to achieve it permanently. In his office, he has been experimenting, with a cup of black Balthazar coffee and a bottle of Syrah-Grenache, to turn the marble for the pizza counter just the right shade of sepia. Blank CDs were stacked behind him; over the next month, he would choose a thousand songs to play at Pulino’s, broken down by time of day.

McNally first thought of opening a pizzeria nearly five years ago, after developing an interest in the corner space at Bowery and Houston. He thought that a restaurant in that location should reflect its environment, a bustling crossroads, and pizza was in keeping with that spirit. It took him three years to secure the space, and construction has lasted another year and a half years. As high-end pizzerias like Co., Motorino, and Veloce swept the city in the intervening years, McNally has quietly gnashed his teeth. “I know it looks like I’m jumping on the bandwagon. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is whether it’s good.”

In July, two weeks after Nate Appleman moved to New York without a job, a headhunter called him, and two days later he found himself meeting McNally at Balthazar. They talked for three hours, hit it off, and McNally offered him the Pulino’s job on the spot. Because of Appleman’s interest in meat, a room slated for wine storage was reassigned as a dedicated butchering room, and the Pulino’s menu has broadened. “When we were fleshing out the idea,” Appleman says, “I went to him and said, ‘Aren’t you worried this is the same as Morandi?’ He said, ‘Not at all. This is based on wood-fired cooking.’ ”