If the great egghead German philosopher Georg Hegel were alive today (and a regular at Momofuku), he might point out that the world of restaurants is currently experiencing a moment of historic, dialectical change. Over the last several months, the Age of the Carnivore has officially given way to its antithesis, the Age of the Vegivore. Chefs who once talked romantically about their time butchering hogs back in Alsace are now opening raw-juice bars and espousing the glories of nobbly winter turnips. Bowls (preferably filled with chia seeds and kale) have replaced good old plates as the chalice of choice in trendy downtown cafés (and even trendy fast-food joints). Among members of the breakfast cognoscenti, avocados have replaced (gasp) bacon as the side dish du jour, and although burgers retain their ageless allure, the one everyone’s talking about these days happens to be made of mashed carrots and quinoa instead of good old-fashioned beef.
Now, with the opening of Bruno on 13th Street, just southeast of the Union Square Greenmarket, it’s pizza’s turn. Not that Bruno, which is the brainchild of two young chefs named Justin Slojkowski and Dave Gulino, is either a vegetarian restaurant or a pizza joint, exactly. With spare whitewashed walls, a long gunmetal bar, and seats fashioned from what appear to be an assortment of peach crates and wooden boxes, the narrow, flatly lit railroad space feels like a recently installed salad bar at your local CrossFit gym. Sure, there’s meat on the menu (lamb, diver scallops, some shreds of ham), but the flour for the pies is laboriously milled in-house, the majority of vegetal toppings are rigorously seasonal, and the “Market” antipasti section of the menu is chocked with refined Greenmarket trophy items like opal basil, Japanese hakurei turnips, and Fairy Tale eggplants dusted with “nutritional yeast.”
The Fairy Tale eggplant can be a tiny thing as big as your thumb but more tender than other varieties. They’re pan-seared and finished in the oven at this vegetable-forward dining establishment, and served with crinkled shishito peppers and a sticky tar-colored emulsion made from cashews and a strange dark substance called vegetable ash. I don’t quite know what purpose this emulsion served (or the nutritional yeast, for that matter), but the eggplant and the peppers were so fresh and well prepared that we kept popping them into our mouths until they were gone. The shreds of mackerel crudo (cured in bonito and pooled in a puddle of buttermilk) weren’t quite so popular, although other dutifully local seafood dishes (rings of Long Island squid flavored with sumac and served in cups of charred cipollini, seared scallops plated over a thatch of late-summer beans) disappeared from the table in minutes.
If this doesn’t sound like your uncle Tony’s favorite corner pizza joint, that’s because it isn’t. With its stark décor and ever-evolving market-driven menu, Bruno doesn’t even seem like a fully formed restaurant yet, and you get the feeling that the obsessive young cooks like it that way. They have a taste for experimentation and a habit of building things from the ground up (the nutritious, seed-stuffed house bread cost $18 and took two years of tinkering), which means, inevitably, that some dishes are a bit of a mess. Many of these reside in the pasta section, which included a bland bucatini muffled in an avalanche of appropriately seasonal Greenmarket ingredients (corn, onions, and squash blossoms, to name just a few) and a wet bowl of twirly cavatappi noodles, which the kitchen overloads in a similar way with clam bellies, bone marrow, wet sheets of collard greens, and too much bacon.
The pizzas, once they finally arrive, are also a little uneven, although the best of them are worth the price of admission. The crust has a husky, whole-wheat color (and since the flour is used the day it’s milled, a variable, homemade taste), and some Greenmarket toppings cohere better than others. Some guests at the table weren’t so enamored of the dill-and-ranch dressing drizzled over the house pepperoni (“I don’t like a pizza that smells like gravlax,” said one), and the “Summer Greens” pie that I sampled one evening tasted more like a random selection of garden greens slapped over some ricotta than an actual pizza pie. The mushroom pizza is a little work of art, however (it’s topped with béchamel and three kinds of mushrooms), and so were the spicy pork and tomato (spread with a schmear of soft, spicy ’nduja sausage) and the lamb, which is dressed with roasted slivers of fennel, lamb coppa, and a barely visible scrim of sweet, properly oniony soubise.
These unorthodox Greenmarket pies are sizzled the old-fashioned way at Bruno, in a Neapolitan-style wood-burning oven, and unlike at many pizza joints around town, you can wash them down with an impressive selection of well-considered mostly natural and Italian wines. There are only two ice-cream desserts on the menu, and like some of the pizzas, they are almost as interesting to contemplate as they are to eat. The house gelato has a fluffy quality, like whipped cream, but instead of the usual lemon peels or coffee beans, it’s flavored with rose geranium and plated over a nice blueberry compote, with a streak of bee pollen on the side. Even better, though, is the sorbet, which was made from fresh stone fruit the evening I sampled it and tasted faintly of mezcal. It’s garnished with red-veined sorrel leaves and little slats of meringue touched with a substance called amchoor, which, in case you didn’t know, is a powder from the north of India made from green mangoes.
204 E. 13th St., nr. Third Ave.; 212-598-3080; brunopizzanyc.com
Open: Nightly for dinner.
Prices: $12 to $23.
Ideal Meal: Fairy Tale eggplant and/or diver scallops, mushroom and/or lamb pizza, stone-fruit sorbet.
Note: Bruno is the latest hip little restaurant in town to join the no-tip movement, to the general benefit of everyone involved.
Scratchpad: One star for the best of the vegetable-forward dishes and another for the best of the rustico pies.
*This article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.