I was invited once again by Jason Feirman (I Dream of Pizza) to Pizza Club. I first joined the group a few months back at the classic coal oven joint Arturo’s. This month, we headed down Houston Street a bit to the other side of the pizza spectrum to sample the newly opened (but very hard to miss) Pulino’s.
While my first pizza club experience felt a bit like a hazing (a very polite and friendly hazing), this one felt like a whole different sort of club. I was hoping I’d be allowed in wearing sneakers and jeans. Pulino’s was uber-trendy and this time it was the restaurant itself that made me feel a bit intimdated, while the group was warm and welcoming. Wow, it seems I have one insecurity or another, huh?
I wasn’t really intimidated by Pulino’s, but certain things went down that made me feel a bit out of place. When we arrived at 6:30, it was pretty full but Jason had secured us a very hard to come by reservation. By the time we left, the bar was jam packed with fashionable scenesters who made it difficult to maneuver from our cramped table to the very hip (and slightly confusing) bathroom.
As most of you know, I like to take photos of the oven, the crowd, and the pizza itself. It’s the job of any blogger worth his weight in gigabytes and while I’m not the best photographer, I think I do alright. Most pizzerias are more than happy to show off their fancy oven and sometimes offer me a closer shot. That didn’t happen at Pulino’s. In fact once my camera came out, I was almost tackled to the ground by waiters, bartenders, and chefs. You’d think I was attempting an assassination. They explained to me they have a no photo policy. When I very politely asked why, I got a lackluster answer from a waiter and the dirtiest of looks from a scruffy tattooed chef (it was not executive chef Nate Appleman who was recently arrested for possessing a pocket knife).
On the other hand, our waitress was sweet and warm without being over the top. She gave good recommendations on how to divvy up the pies and had lots of patience, especially when dealing with a table that literally ordered every pie on the menu (with a few alterations for vegetarians in the group).
There were 13 pies on the menu, but we skipped the Bianca, since our waitress warned us it was just bread and olive oil. I think we had enough carbs coming, so we settled on 12 different pies. I tried taking notes (something I didn’t do at the last Pizza Club), but the pizzas came fast and furious and it was sort of hard to keep up. So I’m afraid I won’t be able to hit each one.
My overall impression was that the pizza was pretty uneven and inconsistent. Some pies were very crispy and had a nice char on the bottom, while others were a bit thicker and dry. Many people have also mentioned the strange way of cutting the pies. They are sliced into 9 slices, which leaves a middle piece without any sort of cornicione (end crust). This is how the tarte flambée at The Modern (my place of employment) is sliced and it works very well. The problem with Pulino’s pies is that the toppings are not evenly dispersed so that some slices are without any toppings at all. When I’m paying $17 for a porchetta pizza, I want roasted pork in every single bite. Is that too much to ask?
I liked how thin and crispy most of the pies were (they’re thin Roman style pizzas) but they were overpriced and not all that filling. These pizzas seem like good starters for the table to share and maybe that’s what they were meant to be here (there are a few ignored entrees on the menu) but then they should make sure every slice gets the proper topping proportion.
The pie I was most excited about was the Gamberi (with rock shrimp, speck, and garlic) and it was the most disappointing. It was mainly tomato sauce and I found their sauce to be thick and lacking dimension. The shrimp themselves were bland and only added a chewy texture. I was also intrigued by the idea of the Porchetta Pie (roasted pork, mozzarella, and onions) since I do love the sandwich version. But the pizza was forgettable because I found the meat to be dry and bland.
It was also strange that they automatically gave us a side of salt. I’m always weary of restaurants that offer salt before a guest asks. Shouldn’t the food be seasoned perfectly and salt should only be added for individual tastes? And in the case of Pulino’s, that salt was so unnecessary because most of the pies I tasted had two major salty components (the anchovy and caper combo; the olives and salami combo; etc.) and the thought of adding more sodium made me wish I had salt glands.
I realize Pulino’s has only been open a few weeks now and I imagine their pizzas will get more consistent as they tweak and fine tune. But in my mind, a restaurant should be ready to go and at their best as soon as those doors open. I’m not getting a discount so, in my eyes, this is the final product.
On the bright side, I really enjoyed the flavors in the Quattro Formaggi which features four cheeses and delicious roasted onions. Maybe I liked it so much because it was lacking Pulino’s tomato sauce, which I found lacking. But my favorite pie was the Polpettine (beef meatballs, pickled chilies, grana, mozzarella, and basil) and that did have the sauce. I think the earthiness of the beef and the sweet spiciness of the chilies really lent itself to that thick and sweet red stuff.
During all this, I couldn’t forget my surroundings. Celebrities (Lorne Michaels and his entourage showed up), bouncers (to keep away the riff raff), bright neon red lights (just in case you miss the place), indie music (this is Soho), and expensive bills (this is New York) all combined to make Pulino’s the Disney world of New York pizzerias. But instead of Mickey Mouse, we have gruff (and probably talented) tattooed chefs warning you to put away your camera and just eat the pizza. And if you don’t like it, there are hundreds of other hipsters who will.
Is Pulino’s the best pizza in NY? It may get better as time goes on, but for now the pizza is inconsistent and while some of the flavors are good, it only gets a 6 out of 10, but it won’t stop people from flocking to the new spot of the moment.