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Pulino’s: an early impression

I’ve gradually moved away from writing reviews on Pizza Rules! because I find that many pizzerias have been sufficiently covered already. Over the past few months, the site has grown to focus more on pizza-related cultural topics, specifically those that exist in the realm of the artistic and/or weird. However, I will continue to write up various pizza reviews when I think there is something to be said that hasn’t been already.

Such is the case with Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria, which just opened in Manhattan, on the corner of Bowery and Houston. I kicked off my month-long pizza-only diet at Pulino’s last week and thought I would share my experience for those who are still seeking opinions.

Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria

I was definitely excited when I first heard about Pulino’s because it’s a project of Keith McNally. I don’t personally know McNally or really anything about him, but one of his other restaurants, Schiller’s Liquor Bar, is one of my favorite brunch spots in the city (their french toast is so good!). The Schiller’s connection is definitely felt in the interior of Pulino’s; in fact, many of the same exact architectural elements have been brought over (bottles on the wall, tiled and mirrored pillars, same doors, same lights, etc).

Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria

Given my enthusiasm for lettering and typography, I’m somewhat biased, but one thing I must admit I was disappointed about with the design of Pulino’s is their “famous exterior” signage. They almost got it right with a classic format of fabricated three-dimensional neon lettering, but the choice of Helvetica as the typeface in which to render the name seems so default and unispired. I might not usually mention such a point, but it’s so disappointing when considering the lovely lettering styles at Schiller’s, which are much more closely connected to the traditional styles of architectural lettering in New York that give the city its distinct flavor. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that goes a long way for exuding a sense of authenticity (which seems to be a goal for Pulino’s).

Photo by Mattron on Flickr

Photo by JesC on Flickr

When I got to Pulino’s at around 1:00 last Thursday, it was rather busy but we were seated right away. The overall atmosphere inside was a bit hectic. It almost seemed that there were too many servers, and the relatively tight seating arrangement didn’t help (my menu was knocked off the table multiple times by passing waitstaff). We were also asked to order multiple times by different servers, furthering the impression of disorder. Of course this isn’t surprising for a new establishment that is still settling in to its groove.

But enough about the extraneous details; let’s move on to what really matters – the pizza. Most descriptions I’ve read of the pizza so far are pretty accurate… it’s somewhere between New Haven pizza and Midwest bar pizza: super-thin crispy crust with a decidedly dark shade of reddish orange. We got a plain margherita pie and a marinara pie which we had sprinkled with some grated parmesan (I forget if “margherita” and “marinara” are the names they use on their menu, but they generally match those styles). The crust was almost brittle at first, but as the oil and sauce settled in it became a bit more chewy in the center.

Pizza Month 2010, day 1: Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria

I really enjoyed most of the pizza; the sauce/cheese/crust ratio worked well and even the sparse simplicity of the cheeseless marinara pie was delicious with the ingredients they used.

I do have some gripes though. First of all, our marinara pie had a huge scorch mark that went straight through (see photo below). I’m all for the typical charring of any pizza that is cooked in a really hot oven like this one, and actually prefer a little spotting; but this was a huge solid chunk of pure carbon that, instead of accenting the flavor, made that slice basically like biting in to a solid piece of carbon.

Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria

Note: orange-ish pool in above photo isn’t pizza grease, but chili oil which I poured on to the pan for dipping.

My second gripe is related to the end-crust (or “cornicione”). Eating the wet part of the pie was so good, but when you got down to the “bones”, as my friend Lister calls them, the crispness that was a benefit in the middle of the pie made it become a chore to eat at the edges. Instead of complementing a crispy outer shell with softer dough inside, these end-crusts were hard all the way through, which made eating them feel like chewing on twigs. I think one of the servers even noticed me struggling with the task because they suggested the chili oil that was on the table. While the chili oil was indeed good, it was almost irrelevant for “bone”-dipping because the crust was too hard to soak any of it up.

Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria

My third and final gripe is one which I’m almost certain will be a major topic of discussion in the future in relation to Pulino’s: the cutting of the pizza into square slices instead of normal triangular ones. I get the conceptual link to this cutting style that is used for so many pizzas in the Midwest, especially in bars. It even makes sense for “party” pizzas that are too big or hefty to otherwise divide in to triangular slices. But these pizzas are neither big nor hefty, so square slices are just not practical. With this cut style, the middle “slice” is left without any natural grip area, forcing you to either resort to fork usage or sloppy grease-hands. And, as my friend Yvonne points out, the square-peg-in-a-round-hole approach just isn’t fair: if you’re splitting the pie between any number of people, there are bound to be huge inconsistencies in what each person gets from each slice. In the case of this pie, where the wet portions are notably delicious and chewy but the end-crusts are hard and comparatively low in flavor, such uneven distribution could mean the difference between perceiving the pizza as amazingly good or unpleasantly bad.

Don’t get me wrong: overall I am in favor of Pulino’s, if for no other reason than that they tried – even invented – a new style of pizza. It’s definitely worth checking out for yourself to see if it matches your style, because I can’t reasonably say “if you like this other pizzeria, you will like Pulino’s”; it’s its own thing, and I value that. Plus, any pizzeria whose chef gets arrested for carrying a knife has to be bad-ass, right?

I will be going back for a return visit as soon as tomorrow, and definitely after a few months when any early quirks will hopefully be worked out of the system. After all, this is a new venture, and it wouldn’t be fair to judge it otherwise.

Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria
282 Bowery (at Houston); New York, NY 10012 [map]