Bruno’s Little Italy is back, and certainly much of Little Rock is rejoicing because of it. The one time Italian staple, which has bounced around through several locations in the Little Rock area since its original opening in 1948, is reincarnated downtown off Main St. on the ground floor of the Mann Lofts. It’s now operated by Vince Bruno, son of the restaurant’s original founder, Jimmy Bruno, in partnership with his brother Gio Bruno.
For someone like me, who never actually had the pleasure of sampling Bruno’s in its heyday, this opening was met with a certain amount of skepticism. Many former Bruno’s regulars noticed that while Bruno’s was once a shining beacon of Italian fare—a Little Rock institution that could practically do no wrong—in its latter years, changes in management and food quality saw Bruno’s begin to slip down that painful slope of mediocrity. When the previous Bruno’s closed its doors, many thought it was the end of the place, and were not entirely surprised to see it go. But given its early success, rumors of its rebirth understandably stirred up a good deal of excitement around town. A move to Main Street meant a much needed push towards revitalization of a section of Little Rock that for years struggled to attract the city’s dining residents.
With this in mind, I made my way to the newly opened Bruno’s Little Italy on Main Street. Here we find a classic red-sauce Italian joint, offering a long list of popular Italian and Italian-American staples with a few items not commonly seen anywhere else in Little Rock (the Spaghetti Caruso—spaghetti topped with fried chicken livers in a marinara sauce with mushrooms—immediately comes to mind). Red and white checkered table cloths adorn each table, wine flows like a gentle stream, and pizza dough is lovingly tossed around for all customers to marvel at. The new space is beautifully done. It’s charming, clean, spacious, and inviting. As you peer around at the ancient family photos covering much of the tall, freshly painted walls, you feel as though the Bruno family is sharing an important piece of their life with you. It’s a place one can easily feel at home.
We sat down recently for dinner; it was busy and the place was packed. We relayed to the hosts that we were happy to sit indoors or outdoors, whatever got us eating soonest. After a 15 or 20 minute wait, we were seated outside at a black woven metal table, dining by candlelight on a lovely fall evening.
We began our meal with a few loaves of house-baked bread. They bring out a small, but whole loaf of crusty white bread. The bread took some strength to crack open owing to the crispy and slightly tough outer coat, but the inside was found to be soft, pillowy and entirely delicious with a spread of their salty, whipped butter. Next our table shared the mixed antipasti, a large plate with a variety of components. We pored over long slices of rolled prosciutto imported from Italy; slick, oily salami; small anchovies, and thin slices of pepperoni. There were slices of Manchego cheese, black olives, salty and briny caper berries, marinated artichokes, sweet peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and an herbaceous, freshly chopped salad. We were all impressed and devoured with gusto. The array of textures and flavors—salty, citrus, sour, and fatty—it was a fantastic start to the meal. We were anxious for more.
Entrees came next, beginning with a thick, layered lasagna. It was beautifully done—the sheets of pasta were soft and delicate, between them sat gobs of crumbly ricotta cheese. The lower layers held a spread of ground beef and pork. A thin layer of zesty, tangy red sauce was draped over the top crowned by a layer of melted mozzarella. It’s a simple and classic approach—you’ve seen its sort before—but it was done with care, and we thoroughly enjoyed every bite.
Next came a delightful veal parmesan. Lightly breaded veal, served with a thin crispy coat and a soft, white inside. It was easily sliced through with the edge of the fork, and even easier on the tongue. The veal was rich but still light, slightly salty but not overly so. It rested under a dressing of red sauce and melted mozzarella. Again, classic approach, done well. Our last entrée was a seafood fettuccini—thick, al dente pasta, in a thin sauce of butter and cream, sauteed shrimp, with a few seared scallop medallions resting on top. Where we expecting a heavy, overly rich dish, but this was surprisingly light. The scallops, golden brown on each side, were cooked perfectly.
We could not resist a taste of ricotta cheesecake for dessert. The presentation was simple—a rather bleak looking white plate with a plain white cheesecake—but the flavor was delightful. It was only mildly sweet, fluffy and less dense that a classic New York style cheesecake might be. We’d happily order this treat again.
There’s good reason to be excited for the return of Bruno’s. There are glimpses of greatness here and it’s easy to see what made this place so popular to begin with. This is Italian comfort food at its finest—familiar, warming, and well prepared. To any other uninitiated Arkansans, any who did not have the chance to experience Bruno’s before it left us previously, I can’t say for certain whether you’ll feel it entirely lives up to the hype. I will venture to say that regardless of your expectations, you’ll likely come away more than pleased with the offerings at Bruno’s. Welcome back, Bruno’s.