We’ve decided, after eating at Bruno’s Little Italy, that every neighborhood needs an Italian restaurant. Not your Northern Italian fancy-pants place, but a family place with red sauce and spaghetti and hot bread and checkered tablecloths and music from the great Italian crooners piped in.
That’s what Bruno’s promises: familiarity, family and comfort food, Italian style. The venerable establishment, opened by Jimmy Bruno first in Levy in 1947 and the next year at its most storied location, 3400 W. Roosevelt Road, is legendary. It’s no longer owned by the Bruno family, but there’s a Bruno in the kitchen. (Vince, son of the founder, is head chef for owner Scott Wallace, who resurrected Bruno’s in 1988 after it had closed for a year.)
Early in the evening, early in the week, Bruno’s delivers on its promise. Why everyone in the neighborhood of Bruno’s “new” (since 1988) home in the Colonnade Shopping Center on Bowman Curve doesn’t drop by to pick up a pizza and enjoy the music and maybe a glass of wine on their way home from work or with family beats me. Maybe lots of them do, but we were alone on a recent Monday when the restaurant opened at 5 p.m. Our order, for a large pizza “a la Larry Jegley,” took 15 minutes. At 5:30 p.m., the first customers arrived, and perhaps they were followed by the masses.
The masses are there for sure on the weekends. Maybe too many.
Our recent visit was our second at night and the first time to stick around, waiting 45 minutes at a bar that seats three uncomfortably and is an undersized afterthought. (There are cute tall bar tables in the restaurant’s entry, but on the Friday night we were there, the entry was a sardine can for the families and non-drinkers who were ahead of us in line for a table.)
Was it worth the wait? Yes, depending.
The fare, with one exception, was good. The waitress was as warm as the buttery bread and the feel of the place was friendly. The bartender didn’t charge one of us because our companion didn’t like the beer he was pushing. Nice folks.
But — and call us old-fashioned, or sentimental, or idiotic — what we wanted and didn’t get was a parti-colored-candle-wax-covered chianti bottle in the middle of our table, some sort of sound buffer so we didn’t have to exercise our lungs to converse, and a view of the guy in the kitchen throwing the pizza dough high in the air and punching it into shape. We had that on Roosevelt. We sort of had that at Bruno’s Old Forge incarnation in the 1980s.
But now, what we get are plain green walls, plenty of light, no elbow room, and instead of a view of a talented tossing Bruno, we get a view of the waiters’ station set for some reason amid the tables. Little candles in glass votives. And worst of all — for us, not for Bruno’s — the predictable wait of 35 to 45 minutes on a Friday night in a bar the size of a shot glass.
We have one last criticism: The eggplant parmesan. Now, accidents do happen. Nancy Newell, the proprietor of the late great St. Pasqual’s in the River Market, once made 75 chocolate creme brulees with salt instead of sugar and didn’t know it until the first was on its way to a table. So maybe whoever put together the eggplant parmesan put some salt in, did something else, put the salt in again … and so on. Never have we had to scrape off a sauce to find and make edible the eggplant in this, our favorite, dish.
Enough of the bad news. Our company was delighted with their food (though one of them prefers the Villa). One chose the spaghetti carbonara, which included spicy sausage chunks along with the usual prosciutto, etc. The sauce — in this version a cream sauce — held the spice at bay. The sausage could have been chopped a little more finely, but the plate could not have been more laden: The gentleman required a to-go box for his meal.
The chicken Vincenzo, a combination of chicken, tarragon, tomatoes and mushrooms over pasta, drew a second bravo. The cream sauce was rich without overpowering the fungi.
The antipasto, too, was the same, great go-before Bruno’s has long bragged of. Salami and prosciutto wrapped around mozzarella cheese, half-boiled eggs, a roasted bell pepper, olives. Great without taking away the appetite.
The Mista a la Larry Jegley was a wonderful, oily concoction of sausage, mushroom, pepperoni, ground beef, onion and black olives. Two pieces will do you; this is a rich, overblown pie unlike any other in town.
Our idea of perfection would be a Bruno’s offshoot in our neighborhood, hung with those ceiling draperies a la the Roosevelt location to absorb the sound, waxy candlesticks and some spaghetti. With no wait.
Bruno’s Little Italy
315 N. Bowman Road
The restaurant seats 100, but 150 are always waiting. There’s a smoking side and a non-smoking side, thankfully. No reservations are accepted on the weekends, so go early to avoid a wait. Italian beer is available sometimes.
5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The prosecutor’s pizza is the most expensive item on the menu at $15. Expect to drop about $20 a person. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.
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