Pulino’s, New York
Say you arrive into New York late, and the taxi stand has a tail that coils halfway to New Jersey. There is no way you’re going to get into Manhattan before 11 p.m., when most restaurant kitchens close.
And suppose that you haven’t had dinner yet.
Where do you go for a decent plate of food?
Both The Spotted Pig and momofuku ssam bar serve until 2 a.m., as does Blue Ribbon Sushi. It’s sister restaurant, Blue Ribbon, diner to the chefs, serves food until 4 a.m., as does The Breslin, which, although their kitchen closes at 11:30 and serves until midnight, offers a limited bar menu in the early hours of the morning. Minetta Tavern, serves dinner until midnight and offers a limited supper menu until 2 a.m. And, of course, there’s Sarges Deli, which never closes.
For any sensible traveler, these are important things to know.
And now there’s also Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria, Keith McNally’s latest neon-lit venture on the corner of Bowery and Houston. You can’t miss it. It glows red and screams for attention, its din spills out on to the street.
Here is where young Nate Appleman, who was named one of Food + Wine’s Best New Chefs and the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star in 2009, has landed after a rather surprising and sudden uprooting from A16 and SPQR in San Francisco.
On the West Coast, he was hot, seemed invincible, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He was on the cusp of opening A16 in Tokyo.
Yes, the media (perhaps unfairly) set him up awfully high.
And now he’s under McNally’s thumb.
What was he thinking?
That question you might ask after having read the first round of critical reviews of Mr. Appleman’s New York debut from the heavyweights. They have not been kind.
I won’t recap or dissect their evaluations. Instead, I’ll give you mine.
Dropping off my luggage at my friends’ awesome two-story pad in the East Village, we three walked a few blocks to the restaurant, arriving at half-past 11 p.m., and put in our order just minutes before midnight, when a shorter “Supper” menu featuring limited edition (just 30 per night) “Pulino’s Midnight Cheeseburger” replaces the full dinner menu.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.
Antipasti + Bruschette
Battuto di Pesce + Bruschetta
Ground octopus, shrim, garlic, tomato, peas + white wine. ($13)
Bottarga agliata, celery, capers + dill. ($15)
Roasted Snap Peas + Hen of the Woods
Fennel, Parmigiano, lemon, + garlic pangrattano. ($13)
Smoked ricotta, lamb ragu + Pecorino. ($12/$19)
Roasted goat meatballs with honey, black pepper, almonds, pea shoots + white wine. ($25)
Marinara, burrata, basil. ($?)
Ricotta gelato with candied orange, amarena cherries,
apricot, crushed cannoli, pistachios + bitter chocolate. ($10)
Nuance, here, you will not find.
The food at Pulino’s is rustic. It’s bold. Some of it verges on crass.
The flavors are calibrated more for a party than a quiet dinner for two.
And so is the restaurant, which has a grunge-meets-revolutionist feel to it. There are checkered floors and back-lit walls lined with liquor. There’s an open kitchen with wood-fired ovens. There are hipsters and preps, tourists too, all seated in a rambling sprawl of tables located roughly between the street curb and the kitchen all under a yellowish, incandescent glow.
We ate off of a plywood tabletop with “POLICE LINE, DO NOT CROSS” stenciled across it. We shouted at one another, competing with the likes of Lady Gaga, who was piped in at volume 84. She bounced off the tile walls with amazing vigor.
Keith McNally spent how much to make this place look, feel, and sound this way?
Yes, look for subtlety and character elsewhere. At Pulino’s, prepare to be bulldozed.
The lamb ragu that was ladled over the “Fazzoletti,” for example, might have actually had body, flavor, and character under that hailstorm of salt. The flavor was flat, one-dimensional, a pity given that it accompanied what was otherwise amazing and rather unorthodox stack of “kerchiefs.” More crepe-like than pasta, these fazzoletti were delicate and light, filled with a thin, fluffy layer of milky ricotta whose smokiness was unfortunately lost in the over-seasoning.
Oversalting drowned the sweetness, and, therefore, the primary pleasure out of a salad of snap peas and hen of the woods mushrooms. Roasting the snap peas took the snap, and,therefore, the remaining pleasure from them. I did, however, like the gritty crunch from the garlic pangrattano, even if it did slightly remind me of a fistful of sawdust.
But given the sturm und drang over Appleman’s food, I was pleasantly surprised by most of what we had.
The “Goat Polpettine” were delicious. These meatballs were moist and fatty, boasting a daringly musky flavor that was tempered by a mound of braised vegetables sweetened with honey. In October, or February, I might have been able to finish the whole thing.
The “Smoked Sablefish” was also very good. The buttery slices were more raw than cooked, having only been lightly smoked. They came bathed in olive oil on a bed of creamy bottarga agliata dotted with what appeared to be smashed capers.
And the “Battuto di Pesce + Bruschetta,” a strange but delicious blend of ground octopus and shrimp in a rich, tomato-based sauce imbued with white wine, was a wonderful surprise. Dotted with green peas, it was served in a mini skillet sided by a stack of grilled bread. We all commented on how thick and heavy the slightly chunky stew looked, yet marveled at its lightness.
Then we arrive at the pizza, which has been debated, ad nauseum (truly), on the food fora. Critics have villainized Appleman for it.
I won’t do the same. I liked it.
It’s not amazing, mind you, but the one we had was a fairly good specimen of the thin, cracker-crust genus.* As a good Midwestern boy, I found it rather satisfying. Yes, they cut the pizza into squares, not wedges, leaving acreage in the middle with all sauce, no crust; a minor detail, really. But the crust is quite crisp, though a little weak on the yeast factor. I like a wollop of yeastiness in my cracker crusts.
There were about a dozen pizzas on the menu. We went off-menu with the pizza of the day – “Burrata” – which was essentially a marinara pizza with splotches of burrata and bits of basil scattered about. The sauce was fine, smooth and tangy. The burrata was milky and soft, but a little cool in patches, a slight annoyance (I suspect it went from fridge to oven with no thawing period in between). Overall, the pizza we had was good, not great (certainly, no second coming of godot, like the calzone at keste pizzeria was), and certainly not worthy of crucifixion.
There are bigger fish to fry here, like the oversalting issue, a problem that seems to have carried over from my meal at SPQR last year.
Service was surprisingly pleasant and informed given the gruffness of everything else about the place. Our late-night meal straddled a staff change (with the rotation went Appleman, who walked out around midnight), and our first server introduced us to his successor, a courtesy I’ve rarely encountered before. Perhaps our first server didn’t want us to think he was slacking on the job sitting at a nearby table with other servers eating and drinking for the remainder of our stay.
The list of dolci is short.
Though my dear friends the Brunch Queen and her husband, Simon Says, were quickly wilting as we approached the two o’clock hour, I pulled out my Out-Of-Town Guest Trump Card and made them stay for a sweet night cap.
The “Cannoli Sundae” was fairly straightforward. It was basically a cannoli, and all its wonderful parts, shattered over a parfait glass of ice cream and dark chocolate syrup. There were pistachios, crunchy and toasty. There were candied orange peel, meaty and fragrant. And there were shards of cannoli, crisp and caramel-y. The menu also said there were cherries and apricots, neither of which I found on my spoon, and neither of which I missed greatly. The sundae was pretty good the way we had it.
In the eyes of many, Appleman’s rising star has stalled. It now hovers low on the horizon over the corner of Bowery and Houston, they might say.
I think that’s a little harsh.
Is Pulino’s a travesty? Far from it, it is not. But I did walk away scratching my head slightly: What was he thinking?
Certainly, I’m aware that the culinary zeitgeist trends toward the casual, rustic, hearty, and honest. Appleman’s food at Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria is all of this. But, based on this one meal, it didn’t strike me as a particularly compelling, or even memorable expression of those sentiments.
Table for a weary traveler on a late flight into New York? Yes.
Good food for that late hour? Yes.
Worthy of a transcontinental journey? No. Not yet, anyway.
Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria
282 Bowery (at Houston)
New York, New York 10012
* To the critics: Pulino’s is not selling their pizzas under a Neapolitan or any other banner. Evaluate the pizza for what it is (thin, cracker-crust – perhaps purely a Midwestern phenomenon), not what you wish it were.