At Pulino’s, More Than Just Pizza

IMG_0111Claire Glass Pulino’s, 282 Bowery.

I am old enough to remember when the immediate association with “Bowery” was”bum.” The Bowery was New York’s Skid Row from the late 19th century, and its reputation was so pervasive, and so dismal, that homeless folk everywhere were known as Bowery bums. And so it’s very strange to reconfigure “Bowery” in one’s mind to denote “trendy.” It’s strange to walk past the terribly glamorous Bowery Hotel, and Daniel Boulud’s DBGB, and Peels, and to cross Houston and to find, immediately adjacent to a Chinese store which sells restaurant furnishings, Keith McNally’s rollicking pizzeria-bar, Pulino’s.

At the moment, Pulino’s is a pioneer on the desolate stretch south of Houston; but if McNally, who practically invented TriBeCa with the Odeon restaurant 30 years ago, thinks his customers will go there — which they do, in droves—you should consider investing in local real estate. I made the mistake of dropping by one weekday evening at 8:30 to have a pizza at the bar. Ha! I couldn’t even see the bar for the crowd surrounding it, and quickly fell back before the tidal swell of noise.

The roar of the crowd is part of the ambience at Pulinos. The chocolate-and-vanilla checkerboard tile on the floor ensures that all sound is reflected back up, while the floor-to-ceiling backlit stacks of Scotch and Cognac lining either wall like a gaudy library of alcohol have much the same effect. The high, open space says “bistro,” or “trattoria.” That’s a fine thing to say, and quite familiar from the Odeon or Pastis or some of the other McNally spots, though I still don’t understand why people are attracted to loud restaurants. I guess it’s a generational thing, like “Bowery bum.” Fortunately, if you eat on the early side — say, 7:30 — or go at lunch, you can actually speak to your fellow diners.

Pulino’s is not really a pizzeria, though the red neon sign on top proclaims that it is. In fact, it’s a fairly ambitious Italian restaurant which wishes to evoke the happy turbulence and easy charm we associate with that word. I’ve found the cuisine equal to the ambitions. The one piece of useful restaurant advice I picked up from my father is, “Always get whatever the restaurant puts its name on,” and so at dinner I ordered the Pulino’s Meatballs, which arrived in their little casserole sitting atop an intense onion reduction. My table also ordered the mozzarella burrata with roasted tomatoes – a beautiful soft mess served with thick slabs of grilled bread, ideal for sopping up.

IMG_0113Claire Glass While known for its pizza, Pulino’s is “a fairly ambitious Italian restaurant which wishes to evoke the happy turbulence and easy charm we associate with that word.”

Still, you shouldn’t avoid the pizza any more than the meatballs. At lunch one day I had the half-size “Bianca Tradizionale,” with mozzarella, pecorino, black pepper and pork strutto, which was translated for me as “trimmings.” It came with a little slick of fragrant olive oil on top. The crust was thin and toasty, while the strutto infused the whole thing with an exotic smokiness. With this I got a salad of roasted broccoli, hen o’ the woods mushrooms and escarole — a crunchy thing, a chewy thing and a bitter thing. I could have used a less bland dressing, but at $15 for the pizza and salad, I felt I had nothing to complain about.

It is, it’s true, easy to dislike Pulino’s, or at least the idea of Pulino’s — Keith McNally’s sleek and calculated assault on the unprotected edge of the Bowery. “It’s a machine,” snorted a connoisseurial friend when I mentioned Pulino’s. “The food is gross, and the service is awful.” Well, yes, they could be; but not in my experience. Maybe I was just lucky. Our waitress at dinner was a wonderfully gracious woman who bore a striking resemblance to Condoleezza Rice. Her name was Octave. The former Secretary of States’s name was, of course, based on a musical notation. No coincidence as charming as that ever happened on the Bowery in the day of the bum.

Pulino’s, 282 Bowery,