"The result is probably the highest expression of bar pizza."
Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria
282 Bowery, New York NY 10012 (at Houston; map); 212-226-1966; pulinosny.com/
Pizza Style: "Bowery style"
Oven Type: Wood Stone gas-assisted wood
The Skinny: It could never have lived up to all the hype that preceded its opening but Nate Appleman has succeeded in developing an exulted form the of bar pizza, bolstered by a superb in-house butchery and partner Keith McNally's front-of-house professionalism
Price: $8 to $19
Notes: Reservations recommended
When I heard that Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria would be serving "Bowery style" pizza it brought back memories of an argument I witnessed outside of the now-defunct CBGB's that ended in an assault. The weapon, both comical and terrifying, was a steaming slice of pizza that was mushed into the face of an unfortunate victim to napalmesque effect. It is probably not the evocation that owners of Pulino's are looking for, unless the headlines of the New York Post are to be believed.
The hype surrounding the opening of Pulino's, the collaboration between prolific New York City restaurateur Keith McNally (Balthazar, Minetta Tavern, and others) and James Beard Award–winning chef Nate Appleman, late of San Francisco's A16, raised expectations to a fever pitch in pizza-obsessed New York City. A16 is VPN-certified, and the early assumption was that Pulino's pies on the Bowery would be Neapolitan in style, with a puffy crust and soft, liquid centers.
Appleman himself dispelled the rumors first on Slice and then attempted to quell some of the hype in Women's Wear Daily of all places: "It's not that we came up with something so unique and different—it's pizza. But it's not Neapolitan pizza ... this is Bowery-style pizza."
The decor at Pulino's leaves little doubt that it is a Keith McNally restaurant, with its red awning, mismatched tables and chairs, tiled floor, tarnished mirrors, exposed brick, and worn wood. Fifteen years ago it would have been considered a nod to the brasseries of France, with some local accents (police barricade tables and tin ceiling) thrown in for good measure, as indeed McNally's Balthazar and Lucky Strike were before it.
But these days the deliberate, curated aesthetic has become part of the New York City dining vernacular, quintessentially local.
I don't see that happening to the pizza. New Yorkers, ever partisan and obsessed with authenticity, might embrace Neapolitan pizza because it satisfies the latter, along with their own New York–style pizza, but they are less likely to take direction from an out-of-towner, even one as prodigiously talented as Appleman.
The pizza might not be a reinvention of the form, but it is an amalgam of familiar themes. The crust, thin and oblong (its shape seems to be more amorphous and have become less round since the restaurant's opening), is crisp, although not completely crackerlike—there is some softness there. It is mottled and blistered in a manner reminiscent of John's on Bleecker and of New Haven–style pizza, an evocation that is bolstered by the ovens at Pulino's—they look like the white tiled ones that grace Frank Pepe's.
The flavor of the Margherita is Di Fara–like with its tangy combination of mozzarella and grana padano, redolent with basil and lubricated with lashings of olive oil. The sauce, although not precooked, has a more concentrated tomato flavor than you'd find on a Neapolitan pizza. But the dimensions of the pizzas themselves are Neapolitan in square footage and, indeed, in price. The apportioning of the pies, however, will be recognizable to anyone who has eaten bar pizza in the Midwest and betrays Appleman's roots (he hails from Ohio). They are cut into a grid, known either as "tavern cut" or "party cut."
I am not a fan of this cut, although I suppose it does add a unique element to the pizza. The problem is that I find the combination of toppings and cornicione to be the compelling aspect of the pie. The center of the pizza is so thin, barely thicker than the toppings themselves, and it tends to wilt so precipitously that it offers little in textural contrast. The center slice the least interesting thing on the plate.
But I like the rest of it just fine, especially when topped with the meats, all of which are made in-house, and which are the best I have had on pizza. Take the pepperoni, gloriously salty and fatty, crunchy and succulent all at once. Or the tender beef meatballs that come sliced into delicate slivers and served with spicy pickled chiles. And what lover of pig could argue against the porchetta pizza? Strewn with pork and spiked with fennel and garlic on top of a Margherita base; this pizza is a triumph.
The pizza is not as life-changing as all the hype might have led you to believe it would be. But to be fair, how could it possibly be? This is New York after all, one of the most pizza-saturated and pizza-obsessed cities on the planet. And how different can pizza really be while still being recognizable as pizza?
I suppose Appleman could have traded on his VPN credentials and past glories and added yet another Neapolitan-style pizzeria to an already crowded market, but he is to be commended for trying something new. The result, appropriately given the restaurants full name, Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria, is probably the highest expression of bar pizza.