Monday, March 29, 2010

Giving Into the Hype: Lunch at Pulino's

For the past year, Eater, the Fox News of the New York City restaurant scene, has breathlessly reported every insignificant addition to Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria on Bowery and Houston. From the installation of the signage to the type of tile used in the bathrooms, no development was too small for Eater. OMG! LOOK AT THOSE AIR VENTS!!!

Their hype-boner is especially stiff since this is the New York debut of chef Nate Appleman, recently of San Francisco and A16 fame (and Next Iron Chef). Also restaurant heavyweight Keith McNally (of Minetta Tavern fame) is involved.  Yes, the folks at Eater have just ejaculated all over themselves and will require a very large towel and possibly a cold shower. Reservations for dinner, which started this week, will most likely be impossible unless you're "special" enough to not eat at 5:30 or 11:30. Which I'm not.

Regardless, Steve and I made our way downtown for lunch on Friday to see whether there is some substance behind this scene.

After waiting around for awhile for Steve to arrive from Brooklyn, we finally entered the packed restaurant. Initially we were told there would be a 15 minute wait. We sat at the bar, with its high, uncomfortably precarious stools.  We were about to order when we were told a table near the window had opened up for us.

The interior is definitely Bowery chic (yeah I don't have any idea what that means either). The pale brick walls leading to the high ceiling are covered in back-lit liquor bottles. A quarter slice of a bar dominates part of the room, with the pizza oven and prep area squatting in the other. Presumably salvaged police barriers have been refurbished as long tables where reed-thin models now chow down on even thinner pizza while packed in as close together as possible. I've read complaints about the decor, but I have to say that it fits with the "new" Bowery restaurant scene that's emerged in just the last year (it's right across the street from DBGB). The place is really bright (but that's OK, because it's easy to see the gorgeous women everywhere). We also saw Top Chef heart-throb Eli Kirshtein mixing it up at the bar, served by waiters wearing t-shirts with "Do Not Cross the Line" emblazoned across the back. Wherever the line is, I want to cross it.

So how was the food? Oh yeah, I guess that's important too.

I hadn't really looked at the menu beyond what I'd seen on Serious Eats (here too). One of the first things that struck both Steve and I was the presence of 'nduja (pronounced sort of like andouille) on the menu. Immediately, we both knew that a large plate of 'nduja would soon be before us.

'Nduja is a spreadable, spicy salami from Italy, which until recently was unavailable in the States (damn you overhyped salmonella fears!). Chris Cosentino of Incanto fame in San Francisco popularized 'nduja, which hails from the Calabria region of Italy. I haven't seen it on a NY menu yet, and looked for it at Bouchon when I was in Vegas (where it was on the menu according to the NYT), but it eluded me until last week.

The newest member of the spreadable fat community. 

The 'nduja was not as strong as I had anticipated, nor as spicy as the article in The New York Times had led me to believe. The texture was excellent though, with little bits of thicker fat interwoven in the pale orange spread. The best part about it was the finish-- your entire mouth is slicked with fat-- and the taste of a classic aged hot salami pours through your nostrils. I'm still on the lookout for spicier version (and would really love to try to make this myself).

See those delicious fatty bits?

The consensus best thing we ate was the fazzoletti with lamb ragu from the al forno menu ($12/19). I've never had a fazzoletti before, but it was similar to a crepe or blintz (thicker than a crepe though) stuffed with smoked ricotta and covered in a hearty lamb ragu with bits of ground lamb. The ragu had undertones of rosemary and fennel and was topped with pecorino. The gaminess of the lamb complemented the smoked ricotta perfectly. I'm already dreaming up variations of the lamb/smoked ricotta combo to cook at home.

Yes, this was the "large" for $19. Good value this isn't.

Last, our polpette pizza arrived. "Bowery Style" is Nate Appleman's description of the type of pizza at Pulino's. I definitely applaud the fact that he's purposely avoiding the the current Napoli craze sweeping the city, but this pizza, while good, does not yet measure up to the current heavyweights. The pizza (as you obviously know if you read Eater) is cut into squares, which I really dig for the small corner pieces (always the best part). The crust is very thin, but not crackery, with the middle pieces being quite soft. The polpettone itself was flavorful and perfectly seasoned. The pickled chilis didn't provide as much of a flavor kick as I anticipated, but were good anyway. The sauce was one note, tasting like tomato paste. It's clearly just a component of the pizza, not the star.

It kind of looks like an open, infected wound, does it not?

Obviously I had to slather some 'nduja on my pizza. When taking a bite of the 'nduja with the cooked basil... damn! Trust me, save some 'nduja for your pizza, especially because there's not enough bread with the 'nduja serving anyway (although they'll give you more if you ask). Why don't the make a 'nduja pizza yet? I honestly have no idea.

Ultimately though, the thinness and heavy charring on the pizza crust, while good for what it is, lacks the bread-like quality of Motorino and Roberta's. They also need to get their pizza tossing down, the pizza served to the party sitting next to us looked like a figure eight.  This is more of a bar pizza, although from a quite expensive bar ($19).

Pulino's ain't cheap and the scenesters will most likely be filling this place to capacity for awhile, which is enough reason for me to avoid it for the time being. If I do go back anytime soon, I would like to explore more of the non-pizza items, including the large selection of cured meats and the remainder of the al forno menu. Until then, I will be craving the spicy salami kick of the 'nduja and the combination of smoked ricotta and lamb, but the pizza can wait for now.

Click the flickr link to see the rest of our photos.

Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria
282 Bowery St (at Houston)

Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria on Urbanspoon


  1. When you say Top Chef Masters did you mean Iron Chef and The Next Iron Chef or did I miss something?

  2. You're right, it was Next Iron Chef. Thanks for pointing it out.

  3. If you like 'nduja (a Calabrese sausage spread whose name derives from the French andouille), they have it both by itself and on pizza (wood fired) at the Enoteca on Court in Brooklyn. The owner is Calabrese. I haven't tried Pulino's yet, but Enoteca's 'nduja might be spicier.

  4. Sounds awesome. Thanks for the comment!