For many of us who grew up in the tri-state area, eating pizza was not something that happened in what could be considered a "restaurant," and there was no talk of mozzarella di bufala or San Marzano tomatoes. Meals were paid for in cash. The guy at the register always had a Keith Hernandez mustache. And faded pictures of celebrities hung on the walls. The modern consumer of Neapolitan pies, of course, expects more in 2015, though it's unlikely anyone expects precisely how much more is in store at Bruno Pizza in the East Village. Bookshelves hold copies of the world's most serious culinary tomes: Modernist Cuisine. Manresa. Alinea. Tattooed cooks, working underneath lighting bright enough for a double kidney transplant, perform elective surgery on a plate of okra until it looks like a Cy Twombly composition. And bar diners listen, for five minutes at a time, to the Maserati hum of the Pacojet, a $5,000 blender in which all frozen treats are spun.
Bruno is not an old-school pizza place. In fact it has more tricked out tools than some tasting menu venues. Too bad the dopest toy of all is out of sight and downstairs, a Meadows Mills stone burr. The machine grinds wheat berries from a collective farm near Ithaca into fresh flour, which is then used to make the restaurant's nouveau-Neapolitan pies. "I think there is a lot of flavor potential in fresh flour that gets lost in typical AP flour or ‘00’ flour (the gold standard pizza flour) after it has been processed, bleached, bromated, and after it has sat in a warehouse, a boat, or a store shelf for a while," co-owner Demian Repucci writes in an email. This extravagance, along with the wood burning oven, was paid for the 2015 way: through a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign.
Repucci, along with chefs Justin Slojkowski and Dave Gulino, with their nutritional yeast and bee pollen garnishes, really, really, really want you to know they're doing something more exquisite than the other pizza guys. And who can blame them? Pizza, like barbecue, is a white hot foodstuff whose evolution is limited by our own nostalgia, by our allegiance to how we ate it growing up, and by how little we spent on it. Pizza does not yet have its Alex Stupak, a universally recognized subverter, or its Thomas Keller, someone willing to push the refinement factor into the stratosphere.
Slojkowski and Gulino, who previously ran the set menu Box Kite on St. Marks, are willing to push the pizza envelope a little harder (haute ranch dressing makes an appearance) and place their pies amid a menu of composed dishes that could alone merit a crowd of destination diners. This is why Bruno, despite its flaws, is the most compelling and creative expression of a pizzeria since Roberta's opened in 2008.
Here's how to make the most of your experience here:
Vegetables and Share Plates Are Elegant Enough for a Long Tasting Menu
Going pizza-only is temping, but that would be a mistake at Bruno where the small plates, which look like curated forest canopies or tidal pools, wouldn't feel out of place at Aquavit or a fancy Danish flower shop. Squid, fortified with an aromatic dose of "ocean-herbal" sauce, finds its natural shellfish sugars amped up with slices of smoked and charred onion. Then the hatch chiles hit you. Time for a beer. Fairytale eggplant, roasted to the texture of slow-cooked bananas, derives its sweetness from cashew butter, its verdant bitterness from roasted shishitos. If the chefs put it all on bread, they'd have an A-grade PB&J. And then there's compressed watermelon with lardo, roasted okra, pickled okra, and poblano emulsion, a sweet-sour-spicy-fatty affair that's straight up Paul Liebrandt — which is to say an outstanding combination of ingredients that no inside-the-box chef would think to put together.
The Space Is Super Uncomfortable and Bright
David Chang, an original gangster in serving high-end (yet affordable) food in cramped, noisy spaces, would be proud of the Bruno boys. Surely no other U.S. restaurant utilizes a more painful counter stool. Designed by Repucci himself, they lack both lumbar and pediatric support. Your feet dangle and knock up against the poorly-spaced bar wall, and I'll bet Air Turkmenistan has more legroom than this. The lighting is cafeteria bright, meaning the environs are more conducive to food photos, less so to first dates, or lingering.
Tips Are Not Accepted. Instead, Diners Pay an Admin Fee
You don't tip at Bruno, where servers are paid an hourly wage. Such policies are increasingly common at tasting menu spots like Atera and Brooklyn Fare, but still rare at the casual, a la carte level. Amanda Cohen's affordable Dirt Candy is an exception in that regard, and Repucci's conversations with Cohen informed his decision to do away with gratuities at Bruno. "We both agreed that tipping is racist, sexist, etc., and doing away with it seemed the best way to simplify things and potentially pay cooks a little more for all their hard work," Repucci says. The fairest way to eliminate tipping is by raising prices, a practice that lets diners know how much they'll spend without having to do any mental math. "But then our prices would be 20 percent higher than everyone else’s." Indeed, a service-included policy would push Bruno's margherita pie from $15 to $18. So instead, the restaurant levies a 20 percent administrative fee, which more or less functions as a mandatory tip. Will Bruno eventually go full-on service-included? "I think eventually, as more restaurants move to no tipping, the consumer’s pricing perception will change and restaurants will be able to just have higher menu prices," Repucci says. Right on.
Bruno Already Serves Some of NYC's Finest Margarita and Pepperoni Pies
The margherita pie, with mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil, is too often like a Beatles cover band – overly faithful to the original. Bruno tweaks things just a bit. Rounds of Caputo Brothers mozzarella sport a welcome, almost toothsome chew. This isn't milky mush; this is cheese, dammit. Then there's the fruit. The chefs use a blend of fermented and canned tomatoes, with the vine itself steeped into the juice, creating a marked pucker and a distinct vegetal perfume that's aggressively headier than standard pies. A whisper of garlic, a hint of dried clay pepper, and a wallop of basil stimulate and sharpen the palate, cleansing it for more pizza eating. This all lies on top of a gently sweet whole wheat crust the thickness of two credit cards, with just a hint of droopiness and – as is increasingly common in New York – no Neapolitan-style soupiness. It's as close to margherita perfection as I've encountered in over a decade.
If it's in season, try the country and peach pie, a clever sweet-savory combination that function as a Southern take on a pineapple-spiked "Hawaiian" pie. Or do the salad pie, which employs bottarga-topped, dressing-slicked greens as a samurai sword to cut the sugars of roasted cherry tomatoes and the fat of milky ricotta. Lamb pie, covered in coppa, is a clean expression of farmland funk. Pepperoni pie, in turn, introduces a wild card into the mix: ranch dressing, a high-end take on the fringe movement that involves Americans dunking their hot pizza in cool, spiced buttermilk. At Bruno, the effort is more subtle: the ranch is an elegant finishing touch, something to gently reduce the tang of the tomato, with a clean dill-infusion playing foil the porky sausage.
Dessert Showcases The Pacojet
There's currently just a single offering on the sweets menu: Rose geranium gelato over blueberries and honey. You can skip all the condiments: you're here for the magic of the Pacojet, a Swiss piece of machinery that uses blades spinning at 2,000 RPM to break up any ice crystals in your custard. The result is a gentle rose musk and a texture as silky as whipped cream. Fancy? Yes, but it would work in a neighborhood pizzeria too.
Cost: Small plates and pizzas at $20 or under. Pastas at $20-$23.
Sample dishes: Local squid with hatch chile, fairytale eggplant with cashew butter, watermelon with okra and lardo, margherita pizza, country ham pizza with local peach, pepperoni pizza with house ranch dressing.
What to drink: A selection of 18 different beers by the bottle or on draft (try a tangy Jarrylo Farmhouse for $7), or 23 wines by the glass, all of them at $16 or under. The Brooks Riesling ($13) is your go to aromatic white for any of the seafood or vegetable small plates.
Bonus tip: Some diners might double down on carbs with the estimable pastas – there's a fine corkscrew affair with smoked bone marrow and clams – but really, you're here for the pies.