Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria (282 Bowery @ Houston)
Fresh from my divine dinner at Marea, I was hyped to continue with my award-themed dining choices. One of the most highly buzzed recent openings, and most coveted reservations, is Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria, located diagonally from DBGB Kitchen & Bar on the corner of Houston and Bowery. With Chef Nate Appleman at the helm (2009 James Beard recipient for Rising Star Chef), teamed up with Keith McNally (the same man who brought us Cafe Luxembourg, Odeon, Lucky Strike, Nell's, Pravda, Balthazar, Pastis, Schiller's, and Minetta Tavern), it's hardly a mystery that this "pizzeria" has rapidly gained such frenzied momentum.
With business hours ranging from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., they offer 7 different menus (depending on the time of day), including a brunch of breakfast pizza with poached eggs as well as a burger menu available only after midnight. Of course, we were ambitious and shot for the prime dinner rush to catch this new gem at its shiniest. Although reservations are typically booked two weeks in advance, a friendly (if not altogether desperate) call to the corporate office scored my blog bunch a table for seven of us at dinner this past Monday.
Our band of eager eaters was seated near the front at a table made entirely of distressed blue police barricades, though none of us took heed to the warnings of "POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS"... this bunch likes to share our food, and forks and knives flew across the table as we enjoyed a delicious array of much more than just pizza.
The dining room feels very much like a movie set, all facade, yet somehow very real, with a tangible current of energy... so much like, well, New York City. I have read that the whitewashed brick was chosen because during construction, McNally so much loved the way the dust fell down the walls, he wanted to recreate the effect permanently. The final result? A cross between a glorious tiled, golden-lit subway station, a French charcuterie, Italian pizzeria, and a library of hundreds of cordials and cognacs (don't get too excited... many of them are unavailable, including a bottle of Faretti biscotti liqueur one of my comrades keenly spotted).
Shortly after our initial cocktails were delivered, the door was swarming with SoHo fashionistas and Village hipsters unable to squeeze into the bustling bar, yet hoping for a walk-in seating. The host staff practically doubled as (really hot) bouncers, more in charge of crowd control and guest-herding than actual greeting and seating. With such electricity and decor, it seemed improbable that the food could possibly match in comparison.
The drinks certainly did not.
With the sole exception of the Raspicello Julep (a sort of raspberry mock mojito), the cocktails (entirely too many of which feature the mixologist's apparent obsession with grapefruit) ranged the gamut from teetering on marginal-at-best to severely disappointing, to altogether downright revolting, unanimously eliciting Looney Tunes reactions of shock and horror as they circulated our group before being left to die in a beverage graveyard in the middle of the table. Please take my advice, and stick to the wine list... affordably priced, and exponentially more pleasing, as we discovered unfortunately far after our palates had already been raped.
After a few hearty swigs of water, and gulp or two of spirited grape juice, we were ready to try the food. The alcohol had somewhat killed the buzz, ironically, but we hadn't come here for the drinks, after all.
Chef Appleman more than delivered. In stark contrast to the liquid starters, every single plate was solid. This is the stuff that wins awards, builds lasting memories, and will draw in the crowds long after the initial hype subsides. The platings aren't pretty. In some cases, they were actually deliciously ugly and rustic. But who wants a dainty li'l dish you're afraid to mess up? At Pulino's absolutely everything we tried was devastatingly delicious and drew gasps and giggles of pleasure all across the board.
Wood-fire roasted asparagus with ramps and rhubarb on a bed of black pepper mascarpone
The Nduja was a Calabrian spreadable salami served with bruschetta toast
My favorite of the bruschette was a cast iron skillet of baked ricotta with oregano, fennel, orange agrumato (extra virgin olive oil pressed with oranges), and black pepper
The fazzoletti was a savory smoked ricotta crepe, blanketed with a ribbon of hearty lamb ragu and pecorino shavings
The ciccioli frolli was a table favorite... crispy pork belly with a perfect contrast of pear mostarda (an Italian condiment of candied pears and mustard syrup)
A cutting board of delicately sliced prosciutto with parmigiano reggiano and granny smith apples
The star of the evening and a must-order item is the semolina gnocchi, a cast iron skillet of lighter-than-air wood-flame-kissed pasta pillows floating on a bed of chicken and tomato sugo.
The polpettine pizza, cut in squares, was covered with sliced beef meatballs, tomato, mozzarella, grana (which contributed a nutty, earthy flavor), and polka-dotting of pickled chiles and basil. The crust is paper thin and impressively crisp, even in the center. An absolutely perfect pie.
The gamberi pizza showcased rock shrimp, speck (a juniper flavored, salt-cured ham), tomato, fennel, garlic, and oregano.
The coppa di gelato was a sundae with chocolate wafers, amarena cherries, and toasted pistachios.
The chocolate mousse semifreddo (semi-frozen custard) with crisped rice was the first dessert to disappear at our table. Outrageously delicious.
The almond crostata with candied grapefruit, cream quenelle, and walnuts was good, but one of the only dishes left unfinished.
My favorite was the hazelnut and brown butter carrot cake, the perfect sweet, moist ending
The affogato was an espresso-gelato float, so simple yet exceptional
Just one sip of the sgroppino instantly redeemed all of the lackluster cocktails with which we started the evening. Can you say champagne flute of lemon sorbet, prosecco, vodka, and strawberry puree? I will absolutely be attempting this one at home in the very near future.
A fun tip for the pranksters out there: both men and women's bathroom doors open into the same unisex washroom, beyond which lie the actual gender-specific restrooms. While washing my hands, two chatty women entered. When I gasped and hollered, "are you kidding?!?!" both ladies instantly scurried back out, and apologized, "we are SO sorry... we though this was the..." to which I simply laughed and exited through the women's door.
Thank you SO much to my incredible clan, always willing to try new places, order different things, and never complaining that I photograph your food, too. Your encouragement and enthusiasm are inspirational gifts to me. I am such a lucky boy to have you in my life.