Over the last few months, Keith McNally’s newest venture, a Lower East Side pizzeria named Pulino’s, has been qualified as follows: “slavishly anticipated,” “a project sure to shatter the current crusty status quo” and “one of the most anticipated openings of the year.” Typical hype from overenthusiastic bloggers? Maybe. But one thing’s clear: New York City’s culinary scene is paying very close attention to McNally’s pizza joint.
“It’s daunting and scary,” says Nate Appleman, the 30-year-old James Beard Award-winning chef McNally handpicked to open Pulino’s. “Because, one, we’re doing pizzas, and, two, we’re making overcooked broccoli and serving it with bruschetta. This is food. I’m not doing anything crazy.”
But crazy doesn’t matter. Food-loving New Yorkers have had an insatiable appetite for pizza lately, fueled by the opening of eateries such as Co., Keste Pizza & Vino and Motorino (which New York Times food critic Sam Sifton declared “the city’s best pizza”). The buzz surrounding Pulino’s, which opens TuesdayMarch 9, has only kept it going.
Appleman spent the fall tasting those other pies and is determined to bring something new to the table. “This is Bowery-style pizza,” he says proudly one afternoon, sitting in the restaurant still under construction, as a cook brings over a bubbling margherita. “I don’t even think you can compare what we’re doing and what Motorino’s doing. It’s not that we came up with something so unique and different — it’s pizza. But it’s not Neapolitan pizza. It’s not cooked at a high temperature; we don’t use ‘double zero’ flour; we’re not using San Marzano tomatoes….And we’re cutting it in a very unique way.” He thinks a second, then adds, “I swear to god, if you mention the way we’re cutting this to anybody…”
Appleman’s talent for pizza making is what put him on the map as one of the country’s best chefs. Nine years ago, after cooking in Italy and Seattle, he moved from his native Ohio to San Francisco to work with renowned toque Gary Danko. But that plan quickly soured. “I realized I was done with the French [technique],” Appleman says. “I [worked] there once and was like, ‘This isn’t for me. I’m not even going to pursue it.’” (Earlier, Appleman mentioned he has “a problem with authority. If someone tells me that I have to cut a vegetable a certain way and then throw away the stuff that’s not cut the right way, I have a problem with that.” He denies this was the reason he quit Danko, then smirks.)
Eventually, Appleman ended up cooking at Campton Place, where he met his now ex-wife, with whom he has a son, and Christophe Hille, his future business partner. Hille and Appleman later worked together opening rustic Italian, pizza-focused eatery A16. When Hille left the business, Appleman became co-owner. “After that, I was on a roll to, like, take over the universe,” Appleman says.
Buoyed by the meteoric success of A16, Appleman opened another informal Italian spot called SPQR, which was a hit with critics. Appleman himself was receiving accolades, too. He was named the James Beard Rising Star Chef and was one of Food + Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs. He was also working on a third restaurant in San Francisco and opening an A16 in Tokyo.
But in July, Appleman inexplicably left his booming business and moved to New York City. “The mother of my son was planning on going to New York University,” he explains, choosing his words very carefully. “I didn’t want to live on the opposite coast of my son.”
Several top New York restaurateurs, having learned of Appleman’s defection, courted the chef. But McNally won out. “It really came down to a gut feeling,” says Appleman, who will be working with nine A16-SPQR alumni at Pulino’s, including pastry chef Jane Tseng.
McNally felt the same way. “I liked him and felt I had something in common with him. If there was one moment when I knew I wanted to work with him it was probably when I discovered that he was a fan, like me, of the English food writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall,” McNally says.
But the voracious bloggers don’t care so much about what Appleman reads; they’re more interested in how well the San Francisco hot shot can handle New York City’s heat. “I’m sure it adds to the pressure on him to do his best,” McNally says confidently. “But I’m convinced he would anyway.”