When we last saw chefs Justin Slojkowksi and Dave Gulino, they were cooking some of the city’s most aggressively eclectic New American food out of a postage-stamp-size kitchen at the East Village coffee shop Box Kite. Nearly a year later, the enterprising duo have opened Bruno (204 East 13th Street, no phone), five times the size of their former operation. It’s a whitewashed paean to pizza and pasta, with a greenmarket focus.
Slojkowski and Gulino have James Beard Award-winning owner Demian Repucci to thank for their shiny new space, which is dominated by a long bar outfitted with food-photo-friendly spotlights. And this team certainly has no problem producing pretty plates.
Named after sixteenth-century Italian-Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, whose controversial ideas about the world got him burned at the stake, Bruno the pizzeria (thankfully) uses a wood fire just for food. But the heretic’s spirit still reigns — just as it did at their previous endeavor — with pizza prepared in the Neapolitan style, their toppings reflecting the ultra hands-on and seasonal approach for which the chefs have become known.
Last year, Slojkowksi and Gulino were opening tasting menus with colorful bowls of fermented tomato gazpacho, and the probiotic fruits show up in the new venue as the saucy base of Bruno’s margherita pie, which substitutes lovage for basil. Other pizzas employ raucous combinations like carrot top pesto and noodlefish (minuscule, translucent relatives of smelt) and spicy ‘nduja pork sausage with cauliflower. There’s even an East Coast take on Hawaiian pizza, pairing salty country ham, peaches, and grassy Pawlet cheese from Vermont.
The chefs mill flour for the pizzas and pasta from hard red spring wheat sourced from Ithaca. It’s “ground straight from the berries and used right away. No refining, bleaching, or processing,” Repucci tells the Voice. As a result, their pizza dough is nutty-tasting and closer to the color of whole wheat, but with a rustic, soft chew. Its robustness makes sense, given the balls-to-the-wall toppings.
A word on the kitchen’s daily changing, off-menu “secret” pizza: Inquire and take a chance. After noticing a nearby table eating a pizza with toppings we didn’t recognize, our group asked a server, who happily clued us in on that night’s offering, which was topped with lamb coppa, béchamel, raw sheep’s-milk cheese, tomatillo, and raw fennel. This is one of the few kitchens that truly excels at improvisation. In addition to the menu’s single dessert (olive oil gelato with charred blueberry compote), the chefs whipped up an in-the-works dessert of whole roasted donut peaches with Sichuan peppercorn ice cream.
The menu’s still expanding, and will eventually include an extended tasting menu, but for now there are handmade pastas and light small plates, all of which showcase Slojkowski and Gulino’s rampant creativity. Summery bucatini tangles with sweet corn and squash blossoms, and a cucumber salad lightly dressed with buttermilk features succulents that a beaming Gulino describes as “grown by me, on my deck at home.”