I feel like I’m in the front row at a U2 concert,” hollered one of my guests as we sat pinned, more or less helplessly, in our stools at the crowded bar of Keith McNally’s boisterous new restaurant, Pulino’s Bar and Pizzeria, down on the Bowery. It was a Friday evening, and all around us hell was very loudly breaking loose. Assorted downtown nabobs (indie-movie moguls, neighborhood tattoo artists, bewhiskered male models) jostled for possession of their drinks among hordes of freshly scrubbed bankers and one or two dazed-looking thrill-seekers from the fine-dining hinterlands uptown. Out in the dining-room scrum, waiters squeezed between rows of tables filled with loud parties of Euro-swells and assorted food bloggers furtively taking pictures of the biscuit-thin, weirdly ovoid house pizza pies. McNally himself presided over one of the tables by the door in a blue cardigan, and although it was early in the evening, a restless crowd was already milling around on the sidewalk, eager to join the party.
It’s rare, in the modern, chef-driven world of New York cooking, for a restaurateur to inspire this kind of fanboy frenzy. Joe Baum did it with his circus establishments of the sixties and seventies, and so did Sirio Maccioni during the heyday of Le Cirque. McNally does it (as I’ve written before) by reconstituting trends that have been floating in the restaurant atmosphere (brasserie food at Balthazar, haute burgers at Minetta Tavern) in his own professionally polished, eminently glitzy way. His subject at Pulino’s is pizza, that great food craze of ’09, and the room (a former restaurant-supply store) is filled with many familiar McNally touches. The faux bistro bar is clad in distressed metal (Pastis, Balthazar, etc.), and the walls are lined with glimmering backlit bottles of booze (Schiller’s Liquor Bar). There’s a magazine rack in the corner (Balthazar, Pastis, Schiller’s), the subterranean bathroom boasts a communal hand-washing trough (Schiller’s), and in the evenings the room is filled with that trademark of all McNally venues: a carefully calibrated golden light.
The only uncharacteristic gamble at Pulino’s is in the kitchen, where, for the first time, McNally has imported an out-of-town chef to do the cooking. Nate Appleman comes to New York from San Francisco trailed by a stream of accolades (he won a James Beard Award for his work at the Southern Italian restaurant A16) and blog-fueled hype. In the mold of precocious young chefs these days, he is a locavore-savvy jack-of-all-trades, equally at home flipping quasi-Neapolitan pies (there are twelve kinds on the menu) and breaking down a whole hog in the basement (all of the butchering, sausage making, and meat curing at Pulino’s is done in-house). The meat-centric non-pizza section of his Italian-accented menu includes four excellent varieties of prosciutto (try the prosciutto di Parma, with a giant Parmesan crisp), a properly rustic example of crispy pork belly (with a garnish of pear mostarda on the side), and several competent housemade pâtés and terrines (guinea hen, salty country pork, a good rubbery headcheese), all served as antipasti on an elongated butcher board.
But Appleman won’t be judged by New Yorkers on the authentic qualities of his charcuterie. He’ll be judged on his brittle, thin-crusted pizzas, the early reviews of which among the assembled pizza geeks at my table ranged from politely subdued to downright hostile. “This crust tastes like matzo,” one of them said as we eyeballed a square of the classic margherita pie, which was caked with a weirdly thick, almost toothpastelike tomato sauce and a scrim of mozzarella. You can get variations of this garnished with meatballs and pickled chiles (strangely bland) or strips of porchetta (greasy and bland), among other things. The pies I liked best, though, tended to have no hint of tomato on them at all. Appleman’s pesto-pizza, spread with properly garlicky pesto, whole toasted pine nuts, and melting dollops of stracchino cheese, has a vivid, fresh Greenmarket texture to it, as does the compulsively edible mozzarella-covered bianca tradizionale, which benefits from an unseen dose of salty melted lard.
Five types of bizarrely undistinguished, do-it-yourself bruschette (overcooked wads of broccoli, or mashed octopus, scooped onto toast from small cast-iron pots) are available with these pies, along with more-standard antipasti dishes, the best of which is a fresh, creamy lump of burrata tossed with pickled leeks and roasted beets. For robust eaters, there are several forgettable “al forno” items (avoid the gummy, golf-ball-size gnocchi) and a daily roasted-meats section, which on the evenings I dropped in included crispy-skinned guinea hen sweetened with too much burnt orange, and a very nice cut of lamb steak set in an ungainly mash of green garlic, roasted radishes, and spring peas. If you feel like tackling a country-size pork shank after an evening of club-hopping on the Lower East Side, there’s one of those, too (braised, crisp roasted, and dressed with red chiles), along with a listless, overpriced porterhouse for two (32 ounces for $79) garnished with crumblings of anchovy butter.
In fairness to Appleman, he’s not in Kansas anymore. Serving carefully wrought escarole salads to sun-splashed foodies in San Francisco is not the same as feeding a roiling piranha tank of New York scenesters pretty much around the clock. In the McNally tradition, Pulino’s is open from breakfast (try the salsiccia pizza, with eggs, bacon, crumbled sausage, and white Cheddar) until the conclusion of the supper service at 2 a.m. This unrelenting schedule is one reason it takes McNally months to whip his kitchens into shape, although he seems to have more success doing this with French-themed restaurants than Italian ones.
One of the strong points at Pulino’s is the dessert menu, which includes a nice budino pudding made with farro, and an excellent chestnut crostata garnished with pine-nut-brittle gelato. But if you’re feeling frazzled after dining at this jangly, overheated little restaurant, have the signature panna cotta, which is topped with an elegant sesame crisp, spiked with soothing amounts of crème fraîche, and served in a pool of sweet-and-smoky burnt honey.