Now that Nate Appleman’s off being a corporate burrito man at Chipotle, Tony Liu has taken over the reins at Lower East Side pizzeria Pulino’s. And his first order of business was looking into the pizza. We called him to learn about his new gig and all the changes afoot on the Bowery.
What brought you to Pulino’s?
I’m originally from Hawaii. I came to New York about 12 or 13 years ago. I went to culinary school and worked at a few places. Then I worked at August and then at Morandi. In November Keith [McNally] asked if I wanted to be the chef here [at Pulino’s]. So I’m working both at Morandi and Pulino’s.
Both spots? How do you divide your time among them?
I spend more time here and less at Morandi. I have a good crew at Morandi so it works.
Given your background, what attracted you to Italian cuisine?
Italian cuisine was a natural progression. I did a lot of Asian cooking and then came out East to learn more Western technique and foods. I cooked in a lot of French restaurants, and as I got older I got more into Italian food. It’s less about manipulation and more about foods in their natural state, and I appreciate that.
How is the pizza different now at Pulino’s than when Nate Appleman was the chef?
We changed the dough so now it’s thicker and airier. Before it was thinner and more cracker-like. We also started using a wood oven. Before it was just gas heat. Wood lets us raise the heat higher, to about 700 or 800 degrees, and so the air in the oven is hotter. Higher heat gives the dough more spring and lets the yeast jump and produces a nicer, uneven brownness with some char and smoke to it. And we’ve also changed some of the toppings.
What are the tell-tale signs of a good pizza?
For me, it has to be crispy with some body to it. I like to pick it up by the back end and make sure it doesn’t droop. And the cheese has to be melted but not overcooked and rubbery.
What’s your go-to pizza topping?
Probably pineapple. I like Hawaiian pizza. We make it once in a while at Pulino’s, but we gussy it up with speck and some smoked mozzarella and oregano and leeks.
What are your thoughts about Chicago-style pizza?
I haven’t actually really had Chicago-style pizza, but we do have one here that’s similar. The “nonna” pizza is cooked in a cast-iron skillet and it gets soft and crispy and there’s some crusty cheese.
Does beer or wine pair better with pizza?
Beer. It’s more of a party thing. Wine goes well, but beer is better. You can drink more, and it’s lighter.
So do you eat a lot of pizza or is it too close to home?
Yeah, on my off days I try not to eat pizza so much, but I have two kids and they love it.
Check back in tomorrow, when Tony reveals his take on pop-up restaurants.