“Why in the last year have people been so obsessed with pizza?” Keith McNally wants to know, settling into breakfast at his restaurant, Balthazar, the product of an earlier obsession people had with big, movie-set-like French bistros. Actually, he doesn’t really need to know the answer, just that the appetite will be there when he fires up the wood-burning oven at Pulino’s on the Bowery. His chef, Nate Appelman, plans to serve a lot more than thin-crust slices, including whole pigs, some of which will come from McNally’s home in Martha’s Vineyard. “I have a farm with Berkshires, Tamworths, and old Gloucester Spots,” he says, his level of enthusiasm rising.
A waitress comes over to take our order and he goes for a mushroom-and-herb egg-white omelette, asking that it be “really runny I mean really runny it has to be runny.” She nods with a glazed smile and retreats to the kitchen.
We talk about what he looks for in a space. “Places work because of what you don’t do as much as what you do. I blocked out the windows here,” he says, pointing to the east wall, “and put in mirrors because I thought it was better to reflect what was going on inside than outside. I like to see the bar and its activity. I like the choreography of people having to walk across the room to go to the bathroom.”
Just then a waitress drops a Champagne glass and as it shatters, every muscle in his body tenses. “I look for a place where the waitresses don’t spill Champagne glasses,” he whispers through clenched teeth.
Keith is multitasking, doodling, taking notes, and watching the room as he speaks. He stops to check his e-mail for a moment and there is one from his brother, Brian, with whom he has had an on-again, off-again relationship for years. “I called him in Vietnam; he’s happy there,” he smiles. “We have a good time now, talking and e-mailing and joking.”
He has been sizing up the pizza competition lately, checking out places like Emporio downtown and Roberta’s in Brooklyn. “I visit other restaurants in total fear they’ll be better and more interesting than mine, and I’m worried day and night that Pulino’s won’t work. Other than that, I’ve an extremely healthy approach to competition. I do like a lot of the places in Brooklyn, and I actually almost opened a restaurant in Williamsburg sixteen years ago. Looking back now, maybe I should have done it. But as much as I enjoy the places there, I’m always relieved when I get back across the bridge.„
Then our waitress places his omelette down and the color fades from his face. “I couldn’t have emphasized it more,” he says softly. “How many times did I say runny?” She swiftly removes the plate and scurries off. “I’m a nut like that and I hate to complain, especially here,” he says, sighing. “But I knew I wasn’t really getting through.”
Keith’s attention to detail is exactly what makes everything appear authentic and effortless at his establishments, and even though he is incredibly specific, he is always humble, a quality he tries endlessly to instill in his workers. “There is something odious about the staff taking on the feeling that the hipness is about them. I have to deflate feelings of self-importance all the time.”
But just trying to get a reservation at Minetta can be daunting. “Fifteen percent of our customers are walk-ins and anyone who is nice and willing to be patient will always get a table,” he says. “But as for reservations, life’s not fair. I’ve got a lot of regular customers to take care of. Not everybody gets to go to Harvard. We’d all like to sleep with Keira Knightley, but we can’t — well, maybe I can.” He laughs, before mentioning that Pulino’s might not take reservations at all.