Following fads isn’t what made Keith McNally one of New York’s most successful restaurateurs—his most popular venues, such as Balthazar and Pastis, never go out of style. Yet at his new project, Pulino’s, he seems to be chasing several. This tardy arrival to the gentrified Bowery—catty-corner from Daniel Boulud’s DBGB—is a destination pizzeria in a city overrun with new ones. The menu, which is simultaneously devoted to meaty excess, is also years late to the bespoke-butchering bandwagon. But the oddest thing about this peculiar mash-up may be the chef McNally brought in to execute it all. For the first time in his career, the downtown impresario has imported kitchen talent from outside of New York City.
Nate Appleman, a big deal on the West Coast—he earned national raves at A16 in San Francisco and had a frisky run on The Next Iron Chef—attracted plenty of attention last year when he first made the move to McNallyland. But if you’re going to bring a marquee chef to New York to make pizza, it had better be the best thing to happen to cheese, sauce and dough since the debut of DiFara.
Appleman’s pies certainly aren’t. And with nose-to-tail dining already peaking from the East Village to Brooklyn, butchering whole animals—an Appleman trademark—isn’t much of a selling point either. Still, Pulino’s, a visual pastiche of Pastis and Schiller’s—with tarnished mirrors, brown-spirit-lined shelves and subway tile walls—is mobbed every night. You may recognize many of the cool professional waiters from other McNally establishments. The restaurateur’s Midas touch, which recently earned him a James Beard Award, has never relied on groundbreaking cuisine—just simple cooking with mass appeal.
Appleman’s food, however, doesn’t even reach that humble mark. His wildly inconsistent individual pizzas are much thinner and crispier than the new Neapolitan stars at Motorino and Keste. At their worst, they’re as brittle as crackers with meat, cheese and sauce sparsely sprinkled on top.
The chef, who convinced his new boss to build him a butchering room in the basement, is transforming scraps from whole beasts into meaty toppings for pizza. Though the rustic house-made pepperoni he tosses onto one pie—and the thick-cut bacon and piquant sausage he piles onto another with custardy sunny-side eggs at breakfast—is certainly top-notch, it’s hard to forgive the unfortunate crust underneath it.
Many of the city’s new pizza hot spots feature light starters and salads to complement their pies, but Appleman’s menu—a disjointed sprawl of shareable plates—goes far beyond that. While a modest platter of oily smoked sable with whipped bottarga aioli—homage, perhaps, to nearby Russ and Daughters—makes a fine dinner warm-up, a bowl of red cabbage slaw with mealy roasted sunchokes is an inelegant mess. Leaden semolina gnocchi, meanwhile, blackened on top from too much time in the wood-fired oven, arrive on an unappealing tomato-sauced bed of overcooked shredded chicken.
The meats are the priciest items on the menu, and—like just about everything else here—are not a good value. A $16 small-plate spiedino turns out to be a solitary skewer of desiccated ground beef and an underseasoned raft of Israeli couscous. For $29, fatty beef short ribs arrive impossibly chewy and bafflingly rare. And though an enormous bone-in pork chop is more expertly cooked—tender and just pink in the middle—it’s still plenty dull all alone on its white diner plate.
Desserts are a significant improvement on the savory muddle they follow. They include a beautifully homey farro budino—a warm, creamy grain pudding topped with sticky dates—and a fine crumbly tortino—a delicious hazelnut and brown-butter cake you may be inclined to smuggle home for the morning.
Strong as the sweets are, just about everything else here needs to be seriously reconsidered. It’s hard to imagine a notorious perfectionist like McNally settling for anything else.
Drink this: The cocktail list, heavily focused on Italy, features a refreshing roster of bitter aperitivi, including a whole section devoted to drinks made with Campari. Try the Afternoon in Naples ($14), a refreshing mix of Campari, grapefruit, ginger and lime.
Eat this: Bacon, egg and sausage pizza, pepperoni pizza, pork shoulder chop, farro budino
Sit here: The handful of tables that protrude onto the sidewalk offer a respite from the often deafening dining room (although you’ll be choking on truck traffic exhaust). While the placement indoors is pretty egalitarian, the most spacious tables are the ones made from old NYPD barricades.
Conversation piece: Keith McNally won a James Beard Award on May 3 in the restaurateur category, but didn’t show up to accept his medal.
See more Restaurant reviews