New York|Restaurants

Live From Pulino's First Lunch!

My inaugural stint as a food blogger began at Pulino's today as downtown restaurant king Keith McNally's latest blockbuster officially opened to the non-"Friends and Family" masses. How was it?

[Lockhart Steele Does Pulino's Breakfast Shift]

For a brand new restaurant, Pulino's ran like a well-oiled machine. If anything, the presence of an army of outfitted waiters, hostesses and busboys standing guard throughout provided an air of almost intimidating efficiency. As I noted in my scintillating Twitter liveblog, servers possibly outnumbered patrons until the joint inevitably started to fill up around 12:30.

Luckily, my companion (GoaG newcomer Carly) and I arrived before the hungry masses at around noon and were immediately whisked to a center table in the underpopulated room. More exciting than nabbing a prime seat right away was the fact that McNally himself was standing right next to us, calmly observing the scene. He's an extremely cool-looking guy, and hearing his working class London accent as he pulled one waitress aside to check in on her was a highlight of the meal. As usual, I was too timid and invested in playing it cool to introduce myself. I regretted it immediately upon leaving.

The food kept the momentum going. Although I'd eaten an entire pizza pie on my own just 14 hours earlier, the choices at Pulino's were good enough to allay any hesitation about back to back pizza pig outs. Speaking of pig, the porchetta pizza item oinked at me from the menu, but for a reasonable $17 I went with the very generously portioned salsiccia (sausage, tomato, mozzarella, broccoli rabe, chiles & pecorino) instead. This could easily constitute a full lunch for a pair of more sensible diners. Dangers of the job and all, I devoured the whole cheesy, square slice thing.

The pizzas are thin crust and just crispy enough without straying too far into Sicilian territory (not that there's anything wrong that). Crusts have that great wood-oven look and taste, bubbles and all.

Carly ordered the red cabbage salad (Red Cabbage with roasted sunchokes, pancetta, oranges, honey & pecorino) which cost $12 and came in what looked like a dainty finger bowl. Clearly, Pulino's is not for the faint of appetite who consider a salad a respectable meal in its own right. (Carly did take one of my squares off my fat hands.)

The room was as smart as the crowd that filled it. Yes, Pulino's looks quite a bit like Schiller's--white tile, mirrors, ridiculously overstocked bar which takes over three of the restaurants four walls and stretches practically to the roof, exposed fluorescent lights, pressed tin ceilings in the semi-unisex basement bathrooms. But once you're inside, you're unlikely to complain.

After a half hour or so, the place started to buzz. A couple of middle-aged dandies had a three-martini lunch in a booth adjacent to the bar. The crowd in general was a bit sweller than those at hipster-centric Schiller's, blogger haven Balthazar or bohemian-ish Pastis (well, back in its early days at least). There were lots of people in suits! But when they start serving dinner on March 26th, the late night bar scene should be more (contemporary) Bowery than Wall Street.

Contrary to cynical early reports (the restaurant is somewhat late to the gourmet pizza boom, the decor doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel despite looking fantastic), Pulino's distinguishes itself from McNally's previous efforts and other stylish newbies along the improbable restaurant row that has taken over the gentrifying Bowery.

Our friendly waiter Andre was happy to count the ways. For one, there is an odd but endearing crime scene  motif to the place that extends from the waitresses' power blue T-shirts ("Do Not Cross This Line" is stenciled across the back) to the incongruous navy blue group picnic tables made out of salvaged police barricades that flank the main room and also include po-po lingo. The "Do Not Cross the Line" bit is inspired by the massive open kitchen visible from every point in the place. "There's an oven back there," Andre pointed out, "so if you cross the line you'll catch on fire."

Also of note: Pulino's has its own in-store butcher! Which is something I don't think I've heard of outside of Blue Hill Stone Barns. No wonder the toppings (not to mention the New York strip, roasted lamb and pork sausage entrees) are meat-centric. In another nod to a current craze (and a chef, Nate Appleman, from crunchy old San Francisco), earth-friendliness is big here: Pulino's composts as many of its leftovers as possible and hopes to throw away a bare minimum every night.

Oh, and soon waiters are all going to be decked out in Converse sneakers that come in the colors of the Italian flag. Andre intends to wear the green ones. You know, "look as ridiculous as possible."

Pulino's might not break new ground when it comes to the classic Italian menu, classic McNally design or (re)established location. But McNally once again combines all three elements in a way that makes the welcoming Pulino's a welcome addition to the neighborhood. It somehow feels like it's been a local fixture for years despite just opening its doors.