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Many happy returns at Bruno’s

By Jennifer Christman

This article was published October 24, 2013 at 3:26 a.m.


Family portraits, a reminder of the restaurant’s history, hang above the bustling bar at Bruno’s Little Italy’s new downtown location.

Bruno's Little Italy

Bruno's Little Italy in Little Rock offers diners a variety of classic Italian cuisine, including pasta, pizza and pastries.
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The Assorted Antipasto ala Vincenzo at Bruno’s Little Italy includes meat, cheese, assorted vegetables and even eggs.

“We are happy to participate in the revitalization of Main Street and happy to serve the patrons of central Arkansas once again,” concludes the long “A History of Bruno’s Little Italy” portion of the restaurant’s menu.

It would seem the patrons are happy, too.

The new location that opened earlier this month has been so busy at dinner - “serving 200 to 300 guests a night … with only 92 dinner seats” according to the restaurant’s Facebook page - that they’ve put plans to begin lunch service on hold for the time being, adding, “Major success is a good problem to have.”

Especially for Bruno’s, now in its fifth location since it was founded in 1947. The restaurant closed its last location on Bowman Road in October 2011 “due to a failing economy and Little Rock’s shift farther west.”

Instead of shifting still farther west, Bruno’s made a daring move east to downtown, under the direction of Chef Vince Bruno - youngest son of founder Jimmy Bruno - and his brother and business partner Gio (they’re the busy, jolly guys who take time to stop by ask and if you’re enjoying the toasted ravioli - which makes the ravioli that much more enjoyable) and previous-location employees.

While in a newly refurbished space with a high ceiling, fresh paint, modern lighting and servers who take orders with tablet computers instead of paper tablets, Bruno’s has an intimate, familiar feel thanks to red-and-white checkered tablecloths, a checkered tile floor, a pizza window, family portraits hanging above the bar, old photos on the back wall and a retro 1947 menu in place (but not with 1947 prices). There’s seating at tables, in booths, at the bar and on the patio.

The restaurant does not currently take reservations (making it a gamble for those seeking to dine there before a downtown show). Unless you get there right at 5 p.m. when doors open (and even then there was a line on a recent Friday), expect to wait (we waited the 30 minutes quoted on another 7 p.m. Friday visit).

And expect to be a bit uncomfortable while you do - the bar and entry are a bit too cramped for current crowds. Still, as busy as the restaurant has been, we never had trouble finding an open metered parking space right out front. And we received friendly, mostly solid service. Our server one night was Vince’s son, who continues the family’s legacy.

When you do get seated, you’re rewarded with a loaf of fresh baked bread and butter while you look over the moderate-priced menu of appetizers, spaghetti, specialties, pizza, calzones, side orders and desserts. Dinners start at $9 for Spaghetti Marinara, with the top stop at $23 for Grilled Escolar.

If the bread (which they’ll happily refresh) isn’t a starter enough, there’s soup, including the soothing Minestrone ($3.50 cup, $4 bowl). There are salads, like the simple house ($4; embellished with gorgonzola dressing or anchovies for an extra charge) and the nothing-simple-about it Insalata Miscolanza ($7 small, $13 large), a full meal of lettuce, peppers, various vegetables, meat, cheese and olives.

The toasted ravioli ($8) - six slightly stiff and chewy cheese-filled pasta pillows dusted with herbs and parmesan and served with marinara - didn’t thrill us as much as they do Lauren Weintraub (the menu specifies they are “a favorite of Lauren Weintraub,” a longtime customer). We left a couple on the plate.

A favorite of this restaurant reviewer, however, was the Assorted Antipasto ala Vincenzo ($16), a platter of all manner of Italian meats and cheeses, marinated peppers, artichokes and mushrooms, olives, caper berries and even eggs, designated “for two,” although it could feed more.

During two recent dinners, we tried three of “Chef Bruno’s Own Specialties” - Cannelloni Stufato ($14), Chicken Cacciatore ($18) and Chicken Picatta ($18), and we tried one of the spaghetti dishes, Spaghetti Carbonara ($18).

Tubes of pasta filled with with meat, smothered in sauce and cheese and baked until bubbly, the rich Cannelloni Stufato left us pretty much, well, stuffed. Although we should note portions at Bruno’s Little Italy, while by no means little, do not resemble gargantuan platters served at chains. Never did we leave with a carryout box (except for a takeout pizza visit; more on that in a minute).

A side of spaghetti marinara made a fitting accompaniment to the satisfying Chicken Cacciatore, cooked with marinara, mushrooms and rosemary. However, it seemed odd served alongside the tart and tasty Chicken Picatta, in lemon butter and capers.

With its buttery, creamy, eggy sauce, the Spaghetti Carbonara, dotted with prosciutto and Italian sausage, was maximally comforting and salty in a good way.

A call-ahead carryout order for pizza and salads was a bit chaotic, as the restaurant was packed, particularly for a Wednesday night. We had to wait to get to the hostess stand, wait for a someone to find the order, wait for her to find the rest of the order (she had the salads but not the pizza), wonder if she forgot about us (she didn’t), and then wait for her to run our credit card (because we might still be there had we tried to belly up to the busy bar to pay).

Once at home, however, we were pleased with our meat-packed salads served with just the right amount of dressing, as well as our Pizza Mista ($19), one of Bruno’s signature 13-inch Neapolitan hand-thrown pies, topped with sausage, mushroom,pepperoni, beef, onion and black olives. We’re not sure that the pizza, “a favorite of Larry Jegley,” quite lived up to our memory of it (or is it that we’re now comparing it to other more memorable pizzas we’ve had downtown?). It was good, just not magical.

Those who like ricotta cheesecakes will appreciate Bruno’s Torta di Ricotta ($7), served plain. While we’re schooled on Italian ricotta-based cheesecake (one of us actually is Italian and one of us once worked for a bakery based in Baltimore’s Little Italy), we still prefer ours with good ol’ American cream cheese, and preferably topped with stuff.

We attempted to try the Cassata, an Italian tri-flavored ice cream with a cake layer ($5), and we were charged for it. It never came to the table and it was subsequently removed from our bill.

The sweetest of Bruno’s sweets for us was the cheese and-chocolate-chip-filled Cannoli Siciliano ($8, two per order) - homemade, right down to the crunchy shells.

It was, as Bruno’s is fond to note on the menu, “a favorite.”

Bruno’s Little Italy

Address: 310 Main St., Little Rock

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; lunch hours expected in the future

Cuisine: Italian

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D,

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Reservations: No

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 372-7866

Weekend, Pages 33 on 10/24/2013

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