April 5, 2010 | BITE: My Journal
Pulino’s: Keith Does The Bowery
Slipping between tables to serve our crisp, bubbly, lightly singed pizza. Photo: Steven Richter
Nine minutes for this taxi to move four blocks on The Bowery, nighttime’s most torrid corridor. We’re already late. “See those big red neon letters?” I alert the driver. PULINO’S. Too big. Too red. What could Keith McNally have been thinking? This isn’t the Keith of cracked mirror romance at Balthazar. Maybe he was thinking, I am not going to be discreet and invisible like Daniel at DBGB.
Keith McNally can’t help it. He’s a worrier. Photo: Steven Richter
I spot the cluster of hopefuls pleading their case in the vestibule where a guy stands with a clipboard. I am a misto of confidence and anxiety. I already know I am not on McNally’s triple A list. I wasn’t invited to friends-and-family-celebrity-movie star previews. I have to dial a special number for tonight’s table. So much for proud anonymity. Every determined foodie, blogger, blowhard, critic worth his or her weight in pork belly has already been to Pulino’s by the time I arrive. By cautiously opening first for breakfast and lunch, McNally reeled them in, winning raves and pouts for breakfast pizzas – sausage, eggs, bacon and white cheese or eggs and potato. Maybe I’m too rigid about my kibbles-and-bits breakfast, my hour with the trainer, the morning email. I waited for dinner to launch. Keith is standing under a little grey cloud steps from the door to wave his wand if necessary, looking his usual dour self, sad or exhausted.
“You’ve done it again!” I cry, grazing cheeks.
“That remains to be seen,” he practically moans.
She’s ordered a salad but you can see she hungers for pizza. Photo: Steven Richter
Do we have the best waiter in the house or is our Michael in the baby blue t-shirt just a happy camper and a master of ESP? Our server a week later is a prize too. “Bar and Pizzeria,” the sign says. I’m not much of a bar type. Folks standing and sipping three deep, trying not to look hungry, seem happy enough. And I’ve come for this pizza. It’s not pretending to be Neapolitan though it’s oddly shaped and bubbled up in the Naples way. It’s thin-crusted and crisp, tantalizingly just a bit scorched (though I don’t believe in burning the basil). Taste the dough. It’s cooked through and delicious under unremarkable tomato sauce, fine with mushrooms, wonderful with meatballs, grana and pickled chilies. My friend adds extra chili oil heat. I sprinkle on chili flakes.
It looks like Pastis to me – spectacular, but oh those nasty seats. Photo: Steven Richter
The place is scarifyingly witlessly noisy. No need for music either, not for me, even if it is Lou Reed and other fabulous stuff. Spying a dribble of celebrity here and there in the booths, I feel born again scoring this table. I’m told the jewel-like booze display and tile look just like Keith’s Schiller’s Liquor Bar not far on Rivington, but I only spent an hour there, driven away by the clamor. I think it looks like Pastis and I think it looks spectacular. I couldn’t handle the noise there either, but it is vintage McNally. The only outright basis for criminal action here are the unpadded slatted chairs that seem to say eat fast and get out. Thee bare wooden seats of the booths are just as nasty. No wonder Keith looks worn. Even before that first breakfast pizza he was taking mean licks. Now with the yelps piling up - some love the place, hate the food. Others love the food, hate the pizza. He used to confront half a dozen critics. Now he tangles with hundreds.
The pace is frenetic in the open kitchen with two wood-burning ovens. Photo: Steven Richter
This early on, the cooks in the open kitchen, racing and whirling between twin ovens and cold table like Twyla Tharp dancers drugged on Sinatra, look fresh and young. They better be to survive the pace. And I like a lot of this odd, original food: roasted olives with dried fruits and nuts. Burrata with beets and pickled leeks. Salads of roasted sunchokes and red cabbage, and roasted fennel with endive, currants and red onions. I like the browned bread crumbs (pangrattato) in the escarole salad. Is this chef Nate Appleman, a star import from San Francisco? Or Appleman channeling McNally? And how about making room on the menu for a glossary? It’s mean to hit us with untranslated ciccioli frolli and stracotto di broccoli. Not all of us spent junior year abroad in Florence.
Here come roasted mussels and chicken with green polenta. Photo: Steven Richter
I give the team points for solving the bruschetta-sharing challenge by sending out thick cuts of grilled Balthazar bread alongside bowls of garlicky ceci beans cooked with tomato in white wine and nduja, a Calabrian salami spread made in house. No need to divide two crostini into four, getting gunk on your sleeve and making the usual mess. We just break off a chunk of bread, layer it on, and when it’s gone, ask for more bread, as my nephew Gabe does.
Semonlina gnoccchi (top), and fazzoletti (right) are a new take on pasta. Photo: Steven Richter
At some point the simple pizzeria McNally planned grew wings and the menu, like Pinocchio’s nose, just grew. But where is the pasta? The fusilli, the rigatoni? Steven is feeling deprived. I actually like the semolina gnocchi puffed up in the oven on a chicken and tomato ragu and fazzoletti – torn pieces of crepes – browned in the oven with smoked ricotta and lamb ragu. It’s about the oven, guys, not the stove. Boiling noodles to order is not in the plan.
Meatball pizza, bruschetta and this sausage are highs of our 2nd dinner. Photo: Steven Richter
Maybe you’ll like the oven-roasted cod with octopus for $27, maybe you won’t. Entrees at $19 to $29 are more expensive than I expected. Cousin Mitch of Tasty Travails liked his bistecca al forno with anchovy butter. Ours is tough and not worth the chewing required. Notice it doesn’t say “fries” – the potatoes are roasted, soft and savory. But the lamb the chef advises us not to order rare or it will be “too tough,” comes rare (we insist), tender and delicious, with borlotti beans and braised greens. House made sausage is a big fat flavorful coil cooked with onions and peppers in its black baking dish. Careful, it’s still hot.
Two winners: Roasted olives with fruit and nuts, chickpea bruschetta. Photo: Steven Richter
A few feet away Charlie Rose looks serious in a VIP booth. I assume he is discussing the state of the global meltdown with those two young lookers. You might be ambivalent about leaving. It’s not late enough to linger for the cheeseburger. McNally has vowed to serve only 30, starting at midnight. (Will this quickly become a status symbol equal to a seat at Momofuko Ko?) Your derrière may be ready to leave but your brain wants to stay and watch the drama. Order a lush crèma gelato sundae with amarena cherries, chocolate cookies and salted pistachios or chocolate mousse semifreddo, better than the crumbly almond polenta torte with apples and zabaglione we are sharing.
I see Keith is still looking a shade grim at his front door post. “Keith, you’ve got to be a little bit happy,” I cry as we slip on our coats.
He can’t help it. His mouth turns up ever so slightly. “I’m smiling a little inside,” he says.
Sundae, chocolate mousse semifreddo, and lemon sorbetto, not just an excuse to linger, but marvelous too. Photo: Steen Richter
282 Bowery corner of Houston. 212 226 1966. Breakfast Monday though Friday 8:30 t 11 am Brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 4 pm. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 4 pm. Late Lunch 4 to 6 pm every day. Dinner 6 pm to midnight every day. Supper Midnight to 2 am Monday through Saturday.