Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Bruno's Deli is close enough to perfect to exclaim: "Five stars!" "Two thumbs up!" "The Italian judge gives it a 10!" We had exactly zero complaints about any detail of the eight items from the small menu we tried during Bruno's Deli's first two weeks of operation.
The only quibbles we could possibly muster have more to do with what this place isn't than what it is. We wish it were open more than 15 hours a week (11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays). We wish it offered the amazing Bruno's pizzas served next door at the mother ship restaurant. We wish there was at least one dessert option. We wish there was more dine-in seating than the eight stools along a back-wall counter.
But none of that overshadows the wonderfulness we experienced in every bite of food. The foundation of what sets apart the food at Bruno's Deli ties back to Jimmy Bruno, the legendary father of Vince and Gio, the brothers who run the two Bruno's operations. Jimmy's father and uncle are said to have introduced pizza to America, and Jimmy undoubtedly introduced it to Arkansas at the original Bruno's in the late 1940s.
Gio says many of the items on the deli's menu were on the Bruno's lunch menu all those decades ago, and Vince and he have chosen to spell mozzarella cheese "muzzarella," not because Jimmy spelled it that way but because he said it that way, "mooozerella." And his signature sandwich is called a "poor boy" vs. a "po-boy" because that's how Jimmy said it.
Bruno's success — from Jimmy until now — is based on using exceptional ingredients and not overcomplicating things. That's what has kept the flagship restaurant packed almost every night since it reopened on Main Street nearly three years ago. And that's why Bruno's Deli will remind everyone who considers sandwiches from Jason's Deli, Jimmy John's or Subway the acceptable standard that there is a much higher order of sandwich out there.
Bruno's bread comes from Wenner Bakery in New York, which opened in 1956. It's got more heft and chewiness than New Orleans po-boy loaves and is infinitely superior to the bread served at the aforementioned chain sandwich joints. Slap a plump link of Bruno's homemade Italian sausage, a couple of dollops of its flavorful, rich marinara sauce and a slice of high-quality mooozerella on it, heat the whole thing until warm and gooey inside and slightly crisp outside, and you've got an absolutely perfect sandwich. Ditto with Bruno's plump, herb-rich meatballs. Each sandwich is $8.25 and comes with a large portion of the best homemade potato chips we've had: a little thicker than most, not the least bit greasy, very crisp because they're freshly fried, and dusted with grated Romano.
We oohed and aahd over the Italian Roast Beef (also $8.25 with chips), thin-sliced beef that comes from Chicago and is kept warm in a vat of juice. The beef with all that drippy goodness is layered onto the same bread, which is doused with oil and vinegar dressing. You can add cheese for 75 cents, but Gio considers that "just a distraction." Again — absolute perfection.
One potential gripe we could imagine from folks used to the piled-high-with-meat profile of some deli sandwiches is the meat and cheese on the Jimmy's Poor Boy (same $8.25, same chips). It's a one-slice thickness of salami, pepperoni, prosciutto, provolone and mozzarella, not the obscene amount Americans are used to. But the quality of the ingredients is sky-high.
We adored the sausage French bread pizza ($7.25), one of four available. It is essentially the sausage sandwich served open face with no chips, the sausage sliced horizontally to cover both pieces of bread. Gio reports the sauce on the pizza isn't cooked like the marinara on the sandwich and there is more cheese. (We think we liked it even more than the sandwich, if that's even possible. Maybe it gets a score of 10.1 out of 10.)
The Gio's Pasta Salad ($4.25 or $1.75 for a smaller portion) was also fabulous. Pasta salad is usually too heavily dressed, but Bruno's uses a great oil-and-vinegar dressing and the pasta is perfectly al dente. The Insalata Miscolanza ($7 small, $13 large) is essentially an Italian chef's salad, again shining because of the quality of the meats, cheeses and dressing.
We are lucky that we live and work downtown. But those who don't really need to make the trek to Bruno's Deli. We can't imagine anyone will be disappointed.
308 Main St.
Bruno's Deli has one set of shelves stocked with some staples — olives, vinegars, anchovies, artichoke hearts, canned clams, etc. That assortment, we're told, will expand.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays.
No alcohol; iced tea instead. Credit cards accepted.