Entries in Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria (4)



Note: Pulino’s never really caught on, and closed at the end of December 2013. It was the first McNally restaurant ever to close. A French restaurant Cherche Midi, is expected to replace it.


My son and I had an early dinner at Pulino’s last week. Since we last visited, owner Keith McNally fired the opening chef, Nate Appleman, and replaced him with one of his corporate chefs, Tony Liu. Typical of McNally, he blasted the critics for under-appreciating the place, but by replacing the chef so soon, apparently acquiesced in their judgment.

Appleman was at least trying to serve interesting food, and for the most part he succeeded. In replacing Appleman, McNally has regressed to the mean. Pulino’s will always be dependable, if you don’t mind throngs of tourists and the crowded, generic, punishingly loud room. But it will never be destination cuisine—just a useful option if you happen to be in the neighborhood.

Ricotta Bruschetta ($12; above left) was curiously bland and didn’t come with enough bruschette. An off-menu special of Softshell Crab ($24; above right), lightly breaded and deep fried, was quite good. We didn’t try pizza, but those we saw at other tables were thicker than those Appleman served, rectifying a nearly universal complaint under the prior regime.

Add a beer ($7), two lemonades ($8), and a shared dessert (3 smallish scoops of gelati, $8), and you’re up to $59 before tax and tip, for not very much food. Pulino’s is not bad, by any means, but it no longer aspires to be great.

Pulino’s (282 Bowery at Houston Street, NoLIta)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: Fair
Overall: *


Not About the Food?

I’d like to deconstruct and debunk a sentence from Sam Sifton’s blog post about this week’s restaurant review, Kenmare. It’s a small point, but that’s why we’re here, so be forewarned.

Here is what Sifton said, with the offending sentence in bold.

I don’t like it much as a restaurant, but that may hardly matter. Places like Kenmare aren’t really about the food. They’re about who’s there and whether they know you. It’s a big city. That works for some people.

“Not about the food” is a lazy meme often trotted out by foodies, food writers, and food-boardists. The restaurants tagged with that epithet are usually those: A) Where the food isn’t very good; and B) That attract a “scene” (models, celebrities, nightclubbers), consisting of people that are somehow determined not to care what they’re eating.

I’d like to challenge that.

In the first place, I think there are very few places that actually set out to serve “inconsequential” food (Sifton’s word). Joey Campanaro, the named chef at Kenmare, has seven New York Times stars to his credit, including a couple of deuces at places where he is still on duty, the justly acclaimed Little Owl and Market Table. I doubt that they would have hired him if they didn’t want a bit of his pixie dust, and I doubt that he would have signed on if knew the food was doomed to be panned—as it has been.

If Kenmare is serving bad food, it’s not by design. Cooking, like books, plays, albums, paintings, and every other kind of creative endeavour, fails sometimes. But rarely is it because the creators never actually cared whether they succeeded.

A commenter to Sifton’s blog post put Pulino’s in the same category, i.e., “not about the food.” But the same owner’s Minetta Tavern has three Times stars and a Michelin star. It throbs with celebrities and pretty young things. Did Keith McNally intend for Pulino’s to be bad (assuming that’s true)? Of course not!

Now, you might argue that regardless of the owner’s intentions, restaurants can be characterized by what their customers intend. But how, exactly, do you put all of Kenmare’s customers into the same bucket? Surely it has (or had) patrons like me, who had enjoyed Joey Campanaro’s work at other restaurants, and wanted to see if he could perform the same magic in another setting.

Visit Sifton’s review, and at the top of it you’ll find a photo of six young, attractive women sitting at a table with drinks, and no food. The caption says, “Kenmare’s owners say it is not a nightclub, but not everyone is going there to eat.”

The women, no doubt, have less experience than Sifton—in the food department, I mean. But who’s to say that, because they are young and attractive, they do not care if they’re served terrible food. (I am assuming the photographer caught them before the food arrived, not that they didn’t order any.) The Times has no idea whether these women ever returned to Kenmare. It just assumes that because of what they look like, they couldn’t possibly tell a good restaurant from a terrible one.

Am I the only one offended by the suggestion?

A couple of Sifton’s other examples—Carmine’s, which has just closed after 107 years at the South Street Seaport; and Nello’s, which received a New York Times goose egg several months ago—seem to me entirely different kinds of places than Kenmare. These are old established restaurants that, for good or ill, have a clientele built up over years or decades that likes what they’re doing, and doesn’t see any need for change.

But Kenmare, a brand spanking new place with a well known chef, has no regulars to fall back on, and the so-called “scene”—those who visit places simply because someone told them to—have a predictable habit of moving on after a few months, or a year at the most. No sensible operator would open such a place intending to serve bad food. That it happens is simply because restaurants fail sometimes.


Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria


Note: This is a review under Chef Nate Appleman, who left the restaurant in November 2010.


Few New York restauranteurs—okay, none—have managed to attract as much giddy anticipation as when Keith McNally opens a new place. He’s on—what is it?—his tenth or fifteenth brasserie, each duly stamped out of a pre-fab mold, and each hailed instantly as if he were doing something new.

The critics have often liked but have seldom adored his restaurants. Frank Bruni wrote a three-star love letter to Minetta Tavern (the only rating above two stars McNally has ever received), but panned Morandi, curiously the McNally restaurant that is least like the others. Those were the only ones that opened during Bruni’s tenure. On this point McNally deserves much credit: he doesn’t shove restaurants hastily out the workroom door. He bides his time, and when he sees gold, he pounces.

I’m less in McNally’s thrall than most people. I wouldn’t have given Minetta Tavern three stars, but I’ve been twice and love it, for what it is. I found Pastis entirely unimpressive, Odeon and Schiller’s both forgettable, though it should be noted I visited them long past their prime. Nevertheless, Schiller’s and Pastis remain packed (I have not checked Odeon lately). I have never been to Balthazar: it’s too difficult to get in, at the hours I would want to go.

Now comes Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria, which is right out of McNally’s playbook—but then again, no. It looks and feels like a McNally place, but he lured James Beard honoree Nate Appleman away from San Francisco, to sling pizza on the Bowery.

(All of McNally’s past chef hires were from New York, and if we can put it so delicately, he seldom chose anyone who presented any threat of running the show. Quick: do the names of any McNally chefs trip off the tongue? That’s right: they don’t.)

The pro reviewers have hammered Pulino’s pizzas, which are made with a thin crust resembling matzo. Of the six pro reviews I checked, not one liked it. For a restaurant that has “pizzeria” in its name, that’s a drawback.

I visited Pulino’s by myself. Given the reviews, I wasn’t going to take a chance on pizza. (The server advised that a hungry solo diner can finish one, but not if you want to try anything else.)

Fortunately, there are many non-pizza items, and you know what? I loved everything I tried. All the food is cooked in two huge wood-burning ovens, which impart a rustic, smoky flavor.

None of the food at Pulino’s will break the bank. Appetizers (various salads, antipasti, proschutti, bruschette) are $8–15, pizzas $9–18 and easily shareable, mains $18–29.


I started with the Fazzoletti (above left), crèpes topped with ricotta, lamb ragu and peccorino: a hearty dish, full of flavor. Tender polpettine (above right), or braised goat meatballs, came in a luscious sauce of honey, black pepper, green garlic, white wine, polenta verde, and almonds.

I can’t find an online dessert menu, but I think I had the budino di faro pudding topped with dates and goat’s-milk yogurt (left).

What I loved about this food, besides that it was very good and impeccably prepared, is that I haven’t seen these exact dishes at a hundred other places. Now, a pizzeria that can’t make pizza has a real problem, but there’s excellence and even a bit of inventiveness on the rest of the menu.

The cookie-cutter décor, cribbed from other McNally joints, doesn’t deserve any awards. And at a brand new restaurant, I shouldn’t have to contend with a table that wobbles on an uneven surface.

Restrooms with a shared washroom are another design feature out of McNally’s playbook. In the photo (right), you’ll notice separate doors labeled “women” and “men.” In fact, they lead to the same room, with a sink for washing up, and with toilets behind another set of doors.

I had read about this, but I presume many guests have not. While I was at the sink, a woman poked her head inside the door, gasped, and quickly backed out. Is this McNally trademark is past its sell-by date?

Pulino’s serves the identical menu for lunch and dinner. I took advantage of a slow work day to visit Pulino’s for a very late lunch, at 1:45 p.m., when it was less than half full. At prime times, I hear it is mobbed and oppressively loud.

If there’s anyone who can survive a slew of terrible reviews, it’s Keith McNally. Really, aside from the wobbly table, I had no complaints about the meal or the service at all. I suspect Pulino’s will remain popular for a long time to come.

Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria (282 Bowery at Houston Street, NoLIta)

Food: **
Service: *
Ambiance: Not the reason to dine here
Overall: *½

Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria on Urbanspoon


Review Recap: Pulino's

Today, Sam Sifton gets back on the straight-and-narrow, awarding one star to Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria. There’s an acknowledgment that the owner, Keith McNally, is working from a template, though Sifton doesn’t seem to hold it against him:

Mr. McNally is an important figure in the recent social history of Manhattan. His restaurants have introduced or enhanced neighborhoods all over downtown: Pravda and Balthazar in SoHo, Pastis in the then-quiet meatpacking district, Schiller’s on the Lower East Side, Morandi and Minetta Tavern in the West Village.

Now, there is Pulino’s. You can sit at the bar there, drink Campari and read the newspaper, as you can at any of Mr. McNally’s establishments, feeling grand under a ceiling that soars above a checkerboard floor, surrounded by distressed mirrors, chicken-wire glass, towering walls covered with liquor bottles. The room evokes Schiller’s and Pastis alike, and is as recognizably McNally as the man himself, standing rumpled as Eeyore by the pass to the kitchen.

He seems to love most of the food, finding only a few flubs and a “punishingly loud” room. Presumably, these are the reasons why the restaurant got just one star, rather than the two that McNally and Chef Nate Appleman likely expected. (These days, practically everybody thinks they deserve two stars, unless they’re gunning for three or four.)

But according to most of the reading I’ve done, one star was the correct rating. This is the Sam Sifton of last year, as opposed to the recent Sifton, who has been pulling stars (and restaurants) out of a random number generator.

The review came awfully fast, though. Pulino’s opened to the general public on March 26, and Sifton’s visits were probably wrapped up by April 23, just four weeks later. (The Times photo shoot was on April 28; it needs to be scheduled, and Sifton is unlikely to have paid additional visits after that.) Perhaps Sifton expected some complaints: on the blog, he notes that the restaurant was open an additional two weeks for “friends & family.”

Still, I think he should have given McNally and Appleman a few more weeks. It might not—indeed, probably would not—have changed the rating, but would have been more fair to the restaurant.