The story starts in Naples, Italy, in the early 1900s when Giovanni Bruno arrived by boat to Ellis Island and opened one of the first pizzerias in New York City. Fast-forward to 1947, Bruno’s son Vincent “Jimmy” Bruno opens Little Italy Café in Levy, Arkansas. Less than two years later, he moved to a location on West Roosevelt in Little Rock and Bruno’s Little Italy was born. Specializing in Neapolitan entrees and pizzas, the Bruno family started making a name for themselves. Receiving numerous awards and recognition; January 19, 1973, was designated Chef Bruno Day throughout the state by proclamation.
Five years later, Bruno’s Little Italy relocated to Old Forge Road – that’s when Jimmy’s sons stepped in. Jimmy passed in 1984, but his legacy lives on. While Bruno’s closed in 2011, they reopened at a new location two years later.
Executive Chef Vince Bruno and his brother Gio – who spent 25 years in advertising – were the first kids on the block on Main Street in Downtown Little Rock. If you have never been to Bruno’s, it’s like stepping back in time. The best way I can describe it, family-friendly with a mafioso feel to it. Red and white checkered table cloths, a wine wall, booths, tables and an inviting outdoor patio – its walls are decorated with old pictures of family and friends.
The location of this restaurant may have changed over the years, but the food and quality has remained consistent.
“If you’re looking for authentic Italian food…if you’re looking for good service, it’s kind of like a whole experience because of all the history,” said Gio.
It’s not unusual for Bruno’s guests to stop in multiple times a week, others travel from all parts of the state for their favorite dish. Couples who used to visit the Levy restaurant are now bringing their grandchildren to Bruno’s.
While everyone has their favorite – the Lasagna Imbotito is one of their best sellers. Piled high, layered with ricotta, mozzarella and Romano cheeses, Italian sausage, meatballs and covered in meat sauce. This delicious dish was also featured on an episode of Diners, Drive-ins & Dives. If you have not tried the lasagna, trust me – order it, eat it and repeat again next week.
They don’t take reservations and they don’t do delivery service. They tried delivery service for about a year, but quickly realized “it was a nightmare,” Gio explained. “We have no control over it once it leaves the door before it gets to the customer.”
Having control of the quality of their food and enhancing their guests’ experience is a top priority for this family duo. Gio – the pizza making connoisseur – takes pride on the consistency, “It took me a while to find somebody that I didn’t have to keep watching.”
Vince has added some dishes to the menu over the years, but their sauces and recipes have remained the same.
I learned something new speaking with these two Italians – turns out there’s real Fettuccini Alfredo with butter, Romano cheese and pepper…then there’s the American version with cream. It wasn’t until the Old Forge Road location when they started offering both versions.
“Today people think Italian food…that’s Fettuccini Alfredo with chicken on it,” said Gio. “We sell more of that and I always kind of laugh because it’s not even a real Italian dish.”
One of my personal favorites – the toasted ravioli as an appetizer and don’t skip trying the veal Picatta. And the bread…oh the warm bread with a good crust but soft middle complete with a dollop of butter on the side. Gio jokingly explained he can’t make bread that good and instead it’s shipped in from the Wenner Bakery in New York.
I tried to get Gio to reveal some of their secret recipes – as expected he did not reveal anything – but left me with this, “Dad always said it’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out.”