This small south Arkansas city was once one of the top oil producers in the nation.
For such a legendary local favorite, Bruno's Little Italy in West Little Rock has never really done it for us in the past. But there's no arguing that Bruno's is an institution in the local dining scene, and after our last meal there, we've finally come around.
To say Bruno's has been around for awhile is an understatement. It was opened in Little Rock in 1949 by Jimmy Bruno and has been a family establishment ever since. Scott Wallace now owns the restaurant, but Vince Bruno remains the manager and head chef.
It's quiet and candlelit, the tables set in red and white checkered table cloths. The smell of home-made marinara wafts through the air and a lilting Italian opera plays softly over the speakers.
Menu items are named after long-time patrons, like the Mista a la Larry Jegley, a pizza named after Pulaski County's prosecuting attorney.
We were looking for something to warm us up on a cold winter night, maybe something with a rich cream sauce and glass or two of red wine. Starving, we felt an appetizer was in order. Bruno's has more than a couple of options, including dinner salads, fresh mozzarella and prosciutto, baked mushrooms and the standard garlic cheese bread. We chose the toasted ravioli a la Lauren Weintraub ($7.95) and were pleased to see that what came to the table were not the pre-packaged, deep-fried ravioli bits you find at most places, but home-made, lightly-breaded puffs of pasta, filled with ricotta cheese and sprinkled with parmesan. Topped off with the home-made marinara sauce, it was exactly what we were looking for in a starter.
Traditional Italian cream sauces can be a little too heavy on cream or too light on flavor, so we were interested in something a little different this time. The chicken Vincenzo ($16.95), strips of grilled chicken served with tomatoes and mushrooms in a tarragon-and-garlic cream sauce, was just that. The tarragon in the sauce makes for a very unique flavor that “might not be for everyone,” we were told by the waitress, and it wasn't for our dining companion. But we thought it went well with the mushrooms.
The special the night we dined was chicken gorgonzola ($16.95), chunks of chicken served up in a cognac cream sauce along with small pieces of artichoke hearts and shallots, all topped off with a generous portion of gorgonzola cheese. This created a bit of what you might call plate-envy in our companion. The gorgonzola and the lightly breaded chicken, as opposed to grilled, really put this dish over the top, giving it a down-home, cooked-with-love flavor that the chicken Vincenzo was missing.
Both dishes were better than we'd come to expect from Bruno's, where previous forays into more traditional fare, like their spaghetti and lasagna, had left us unimpressed.
For dessert, we planned a two-pronged assault: cannoli ($6.50) and chocolate mousse cake ($6.50). The cannoli was delightful. The pastry portion was sprinkled with just the right amount of cinnamon and sugar and the filling was cool and creamy, but not too sweet. Our companion thoroughly enjoyed the mousse cake, which was really more like a pie. The crust was “chocolaty and amazing,” the filling fluffy and light.
Dinner for two, with an appetizer, two entrees, two desserts and a half carafe of wine ($13.95) came out to nearly $70, a total we found to be a little steep. But even with the hefty tab, our opinion on Bruno's ranking among local Italian joints has definitely changed for the better.
The steak price is right in line with Arthur's or Sonny Williams. The salmon seems…