At Pulino, Keith McNally Hits Skid Row
"Remember the squeegee guys?" The fellow at the table next to us was waxing nostalgic, and cursing Giuliani. I wondered if the once-notorious windshield cleaners would be surprised to hear themselves being eulogized in a restaurant like Pulino's. Keith McNally's new Bowery restaurant is certainly a sight to behold—rows of back-lit brown spirit bottles throw an amber glow from the walls, two cavernous wood-burning ovens smolder behind a brick arch, and some of the tables are constructed of police barricades, printed with the words "Do Not Cross." Nudge-nudge-wink-wink.
And it's packed, thriving at nearly every hour of the day—full of elegant, stick-thin older women who sit alone and drink wine with perfect calm; plump, pinkish guys in jackets and ties; mustachioed bartenders in suspenders enjoying their Monday off; editors pecking at BlackBerries; girly-girls who just moved to the Lower East Side; and, of course, food writers. One night, we were seated next to Josh Ozersky. Like McNally's Minetta Tavern, Pulino's is crafted to make you feel like you're at the buzzing center of the world.
Behind a counter, six or so white-capped, fleet-footed cooks tend the hot ovens, dangling hams and copper pans above their heads. Just on the dining-room side of the divide, executive chef Nate Appleman—completely bald, extensively tattooed, striking—supervises and expedites, checking each plate before it goes out. Appleman became famous for his San Francisco Neapolitan pizza joint, A16, before being lured to New York to head up Pulino's, which serves pizza of a very different style.
The restaurant offers much more than pies, though—antipasti and salads, charcuterie, bruschette, various wood-roasted meat and fish, and a lengthy dessert list. It butchers its own meat and cures its own sardines. In fact, the pizza pales in comparison to its competition on the menu. Pulino's is best thought of as a good trattoria rather than an OK pizzeria.
Although the in-house butchery results in some appealing meat dishes, we were most taken with the vegetable-based antipasti and salads. Roasted asparagus topped with a limpid sauté of ramps and rhubarb on a smear of black-pepper mascarpone tastes like the apotheosis of spring cookery—the asparagus's woodsy sweetness concentrated by the heat of the oven, the ramps and rhubarb providing their respective garlicky-tart pungencies. Even better, an antipasto of buttery smoked sable gets a bitter, herbal lift from a smattering of celery, dill, and capers; a creamy, aioli-like sauce spiked with bottarga pulls it together. Those sardines reminded me of the sashimi-like new Holland herring you can get three weeks from now down the street at Russ and Daughters. The sardines' silken flesh is simply cured in oil. They did, though, need a sprinkle of salt.
Falling on the vegetables like starved rabbits, we agreed that a good salad should not be such a rare thing. One here combines caramelized ribbons of fennel with bitter greens, currants, red onions, and a bare moistening of mustardy dressing. Another tosses roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with escarole, Parmesan, and garlic breadcrumbs that suffuse the thing with crunch.
On another night, my fellow eater and I decided to go for nothing but meat. We tried the Edwards Surryano prosciutto scattered with peanuts and served with pungent, semi-soft Appalachian cheese. A bite with all three elements together was a bit of a shock, like a fleshy Butterfinger.
Appleman is known for his meatballs, so we ordered goat polpettine—loose, juicy orbs of the meat braised in a vegetal stew thickened with a bit of polenta. They're just fine, although maybe our enthusiasm was dampened by too-high expectations. Duckling—a braised thigh and a grilled, crisp-skinned breast—carries a deliciously smoky savor from the wood flame. But the best element of that dish, far and away, is the mess of roasted fennel, date slivers, and pears that sits under the bird.
But we can't get out of here without talking about the pizzas. The toppings are undeniably tasty, especially the dryish, concentrated tomato sauce. The eccentric crust, though, defines how you'll feel about the pie. It has a grayish cast, and is completely flat and crisp, lacking any airhole structure, any gluten chew, any yeasty sweetness. It's cracker-like and spotted with char, almost insubstantial. We know from interviews with Appleman and Beth Ann Simpkins, head of the pizza program, that this is by design. It's not unpleasant, but not the most delicious choice, either.
A friend nailed it when she noted that the crust has no textural variation. Almost any style of pizza, whether New York coal oven or Neapolitan, has a crust that's crisp in spots; chewy, soppy, airy, or brittle in others. Pulino's, she said, reminded her of the matzo pizzas her mother used to make.
Still grumbling about the crust—really, why is it so gray?—we ordered dessert. The budino di farro is a milky pudding made from the nutty whole-wheat. It arrives in a cast-iron crock, hot from the oven, golden on top. Garnished with tart, rich goat's-milk yogurt and sugary dates, it's good enough to make you forget your own name, much less an oddball pizza.
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