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Keith McNally and Tony Liu on Transforming Pulino's

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Krieger, 03/23/11

Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria had a hell of a first year. After months of anticipation, it opened to an insane amount of buzz last spring, only to receive unexpectedly mixed reviews from the city's top critics. It lost its star chef, gained a new one and soldiered on. It's one of restaurateur Keith McNally's most expensive projects, and according to him, his most time-consuming. He also believes that right now, with Morandi chef Tony Liu in the kitchen, it's better than it ever has been before. We recently sat down with Keith and Tony to talk about the first year of Pulino's, the recent changes at the restaurant and the road ahead.

Keith McNally, restaurateur: It's not been a very easy year. Why is that? Oh, I think partly because of the publicity that came in advance, which was unsolicited. And I think that when you get that much publicity, often it leads to people being disappointed. I think initially, with the way that I put together the place, and working with Nate Appleman, there were things that disappointed people, and hopefully some of those things have changed quite radically since Nate and I decided to part ways.

How was this build different from any other restaurant that you'd opened? It was more expensive. It was complicated. There were a lot of structural changes to be done. I'm very slow, very methodical — I change my mind a lot. Each restaurant is a stepping stone to doing something marginally different from the other one. To a degree, a lot of Woody Allen films are very similar. And to some degree, you know my restaurants are similar as well, but they're not as funny as Woody Allen films.

Had you tried Nate's food before you worked together? No. I hadn't been to San Francisco since the earthquake, 1911. I'd never tried his food. Honestly, I'd never heard of Nate until someone told me about him, then I met him. But I really liked him, and I liked his ideas and he was enthusiastic. And I thought "Yeah I'll go along with it," and I'm glad I did. It didn't work out the way we both wanted it to, but that's the way it goes. Not everything succeeds initially.

How did the opening go? Well, there was too much build up. Next time, if I do another restaurant, I'd like to avoid a big...there was no publicity campaign, because I never had a PR person or anything like that. Just through years of being in the business, I suppose I accumulated more interest from the press than I used to have. And some of it was controversial...I wished I hadn't been in the press so much. It was wild. It very, very busy — too busy, really. We couldn't really cope with it. Also, we had certain critics that were here in three weeks. I'm sure there's an argument to say that "all is fair," but it was like taking your S.A.T.s at nine years old. It was very difficult being reviewed when we were so raw and we hadn't really formed our ideas properly. Maybe we shouldn't have opened when we did.

When it opened, a lot of the press — even critics — were immediately sharing their thoughts on the blogs and Twitter. How did you feel about that? You're clearly going to disappoint people when that happens. I mean, it's just inevitable. And I'm not going to say that we didn't make a lot of mistakes, and we probably deserved a lot of the criticism we got. I mean, I certainly did, personally. I think I'm a little more philosophical about it now than I was when I received it. I sort of lashed out at the critics, and I probably shouldn't have done that, in retrospect. But that happens. It's much better — much better — to be some small, inaccessible place in Brooklyn that gets discovered, than to be some place in the middle of Manhattan that everyone knows about. We got reviewed, and they weren't great reviews. And so then we had this slow, difficult process of rebuilding, of changing — we changed the chef, changed the manager, changed the pizza, brought in more salads, changed the desserts, made the place slightly more comfortable, and we changed the drinks program considerably. It was also loud, and we've done something to the acoustics. And the work begins all over again.

When did those changes happen? Well, it's been changing slowly since Tony took over four months ago. But now I think we're on the brink of absolutely where we want to be. We've got a new menu.

Tony, how is the menu different? Tony Liu, executive chef: Well, it used to be a fold-out menu, now it's just one sheet and that creates a different dimension in terms of thinking about what kind of restaurant it is. We wanted to create something that's a little more than just a pizzeria, so we kind of changed it around. There's other things you can order that highlight the ovens. We have two ovens — one is used for pizza and the other is used for al forno dishes. We also added an antipasti section as well — I like the antipasti. You can pick and choose whatever you want, construct your own meal. It's smaller portions, so you can take in a lot more things. KM: I don't think the pizzas were ever right, either. That's one big thing, a big change. They were sort of cracker-like, they were too thin, and we couldn't use the mozzarella that I maybe liked. But now we changed it. The proofing is different and we turned up the oven. It was between five and six hundred degrees, and now it's between like six and seven hundred degrees, and now we use wood. We reduced the fans that were exhausting the smoke, so that it imparts more of the flavor to the pizza. And I like having a lot of fish — the whole branzino I like very much and I like the new sole that's on the menu.

Tell us about the split with Nate. Was that a long time in the works? No, I think both of us realized that it wasn't quite working out. And it's really sad when that happens, because in many ways I have a lot in common with Nate. I like Nate. His ex-wife still works at Balthazar with me, and I like his son very much. But professionally, it wasn't working between us, and we only went as far as we could. I'm sure he's as sad about what happened as I am, and I think he suffered as much or more than I did. I think he was a bit shocked that after having a lot of success in San Francisco he should come to New York and be criticized. I've been criticized before, so it wasn't so bad in a way for me, but it was tough on him.

Where you surprised when he started working for Chipotle? No. I understand that completely. It's nice to get out and do something very, very different, and not what people expect. So, I think that was a wise thing to do in a funny way, and I'm sure he'll come back and do something. But maybe he enjoys doing what he's doing — I'm not sure. But I wasn't surprised, I thought it was actually probably the best thing. I mean, I felt like crawling under a rock for a year.

What are you happy about with Pulino's? Well, I very much like working with Tony, because I've worked with him before, we get along well, I respect him a lot and I love his food. So, I really love the food, and I think the pizza is changing. One just hopes that people take notice of it. The same thing happened at Morandi — that didn't start out perfectly either — and we got four reviews. But with Tony and the people that I work with, we managed to turn it around and it's happening here now.

Tony, what were the challenges of coming onto this project eight months in? Just coming here, and getting to know the staff, the equipment and the service. It's a lot more one-course dinners, and a lot of pizzas and the pickups are a lot quicker. The pizzas can drag down service a little bit. Actually before I came, they could cook more pizzas at one time. Now, they cook a few less pizzas, but it's faster. It's great with the open kitchen because I can see the customer's reaction, and we can see how fast a table is progressing into meal. We've also been fooling around with house-made pasta for about the last month. There is a kitchen downstairs that we didn't use very much, but now we do.

Keith, tell us about what happened with the Village Paper space. The community board was great, but the block association was unhappy with a restaurant going there unless they had a lot of control over it. So, they tried to basically tell me what I could cook there. And actually they didn't want a pizzeria and I said "Okay, I'll do something more like Pastis or Balthazar," which they warmed to. But then I had to go to meetings with the block association justifying why a certain steak was on the menu and not another one. It was madness. I lost money pulling out, but I couldn't go through with it. I must say that the community board was very supportive, but they were accountable, answerable to the block association. It's getting more and more difficult to open a restaurant.

After all that, do you still think about expanding Pulino's? Maybe, why not. A smaller version of this would work very well, and maybe one day we'll do that. I talked to Tony about that, maybe doing a couple of smaller ones around the city.

Has Pulino's changed they way you'll open restaurants? Yeah. Smaller, as little publicity as possible, as inconspicuous as possible. Smaller somehow is better. With everybody on the internet, I'd like to build it slowly, softly and quietly, as much as possible. I would like to do it discreetly — invisible. I'd just like to get on and do the restaurant and not deal with people's expectations.

· All Pulinos Coverage on Eater [~ENY~]

Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria

282 Bowery New York, NY 10012-3674

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