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Bruno's Little Italy is back, and 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 it opened in 1948, has been revived downtown on Main Street on the ground floor of the Mann Lofts. This go 'round, the Bruno's — who weren't involved in the business when it faltered several years ago — are back in charge, led by Vince Bruno, son of the restaurant's original founder, Jimmy Bruno, in partnership with his brother Gio Bruno.
Many former Bruno's regulars will admit 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 former Bruno's (located on Bowman Curve) closed its doors, some thought it was the end of the place, and many 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, we made our way to the newly opened Bruno's Little Italy on Main Street. Red-and-white checkered tablecloths adorn each table, wine flows like a gentle stream into tall, stemmed glassware, and pizza dough is lovingly tossed around for all customers to marvel at through the kitchen window. 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.
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 satisfying with a spread of their salty, whipped butter. Next our table shared the Assorted Antipasto ala Vincenzo ($16), a large plate with a variety of components, easily shared between two or three people. We pored over long slices of rolled prosciutto imported from Italy; slick, oily salami; small, rolled anchovies, and thin slices of pepperoni. There were slices of Manchego cheese, black olives, briny caper berries, marinated artichokes, sweet peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and a herbaceous, freshly chopped salad. We were all impressed and devoured with gusto. The array of textures and flavors — salty, citrus, sour — were a fantastic start to the meal.
We also selected a side order of their popular, house made Italian sausage ($5). It's rather plain to look at — two grilled sausages smothered in red sauce — but the flavors within were remarkable. The sausages are sliced in half lengthwise, grilled, and served under marinara sauce. They come out tender and soft, but still retain a nice snap when cutting into them. The spiciness of the sausage plays well with the tangy, almost sweet flavor of their exemplary tomato sauce. It's a sauce so good, even after the sausages are devoured, you'll want to sop up every last drop of it with a crust of bread.
Entrees came next, beginning with a thick, layered Lasagna Imbotito ($15). It was beautifully done — the sheets of pasta were soft and delicate, between them sat crumbly ricotta cheese. The lower layers held a spread of ground beef and pork. A thin layer of 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.
Our server recommended the vegetable manicotti ($16), and we took her advice. Here was a long, fattened tube of stuffed pasta — filled with spinach, broccoli, onions and ricotta cheese — smothered in red sauce and draped in mozzarella. The dish came to us fresh from the oven; it bubbled and steamed as it hit the table. The pasta was soft, punctuated by golden gobs of salty cheese. The vegetables within gave it texture and depth. Again, we were pleased.
Next came a delightful veal parmesan ($15). 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 also rested under a dressing of red sauce and melted mozzarella.
There was a seafood fettuccini ($22) — thick, al dente pasta, in a thin sauce of butter and cream, sauteed shrimp, tender clams, and a few seared scallop medallions on top. Where we expected a heavy, overly rich dish, this was surprisingly light. The scallops, golden brown on each side, were cooked perfectly.
We could not resist a taste of the Torta di Ricotta ($7), an Italian 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.
Since its opening, the place has been busy — so busy, even the Bruno family have been surprised with their early success. But this is not unexpected given the experiences we've had with the restaurant. 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. This is Italian comfort food at its finest.
Bruno's Little Italy
310 Main St.
This go-round, Bruno's is making business a family affair. On our two visits, we were served by Gio Bruno's daughter, Genny. Chef Vince and Gio both work the floor, ensuring that diners are having a satisfactory experience. There's a Bruno at head chef back in the kitchen, several other young Bruno's serving tables, and it's clear that every one of them loves this restaurant.
5 p.m. until 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday 5 p.m. (expect lunch hours in the future).
Credit cards accepted, full bar.