Bruno’s Little Italy Deli
A taste of history on Main Street
THERE IS SOMETHING about the marinara. Something about the way one bite of it—one taste of its savory, herb-spiked tomato-ness—pretty well allows you to transcend time and place. I know this because I’m sidled up to a Formica bar in Bruno’s Little Italy’s new deli, all bright lights and white subway tiles and deli cases and metal shelves stocked with Italian dry goods, and if I close my eyes as I take another bite of this meatball sandwich, I could easily be lingering over a candlelit, red-and-white-checked table two doors down. I almost instinctively reach for my glass of Chianti.
“Oh,” my husband says, lost in his veal ala Parmigiano sandwich. “Oh, that’s good.”
I take another bite, and this time I open my eyes to find the forest-green-walled dining room of Bruno’s former Bowman Road location, which was very much “our place.” It’s 2009, and we’re dawdling past closing time over a meat-sauce-speckled legal pad, chewing on pens and sipping wine while nervously jotting notes in columns denoted “PROS” and “CONS,” stewing over whether or not we should up and move to Washington, D.C. (The “pros” had it, in case you’re curious.)
I’m broken from my reverie by the teenager behind the counter in his “Legalize marinara!” ringer tee who, bless his heart, is struggling to keep up with “two meatballs” this and “three Jimmy’s Poor Boys” that. It’s the fourth day that the deli has been open after months and months of “will they?” and “is it ready yet?” and I can tell that I’m not the only downtowner who’s been very much anticipating this moment—this glorious, glorious moment. In fact, from the line out the door, it seems that all of downtown has been more than ready for an Italian roast beef sandwich. Because, in a word, it’s chaos.
People are everywhere. Huddling outside. Queuing up at the register. Congregating by the front door. Hovering around the deli’s 10 bar stools, ready to pounce. In other new restaurants on other Main Streets, this might all be too much. But here, no one shows any sign of frustration. It’s almost uncanny, really: These folks, hungry as they may be, seem to know, almost instinctively, that it’ll be worth the wait. They know why they’re here, after all. And sure, that reason has a lot to do with the marinara—but I’d venture a guess that it’s got even more to do with the folks behind it and everything they represent.
Until Aug. 9, it had been—and this is an approximation—10,645 days since Gio Bruno had had an Italian roast beef sandwich. Or at least the Bruno’s version of an Italian roast beef sandwich. The kind he’d grown up on, the kind his father, Jimmy, had crafted in the family restaurant’s kitchen for decades, the kind Gio served at Bruno’s Old Forge location after he and his brothers had taken up the torch in the late ’70s.
“And it was just as great as I remembered,” he says, taking a long drag of a cigarette during a much-deserved break on the humidity-soaked patio of his Main Street restaurant, two doors down from where, just hours ago, a line had snaked out of the newly opened deli he owns with his brother, Vince. “Did you serve them at the Bowman location?”
“Y’know, I don’t think so,” Vince says. “We did serve sandwiches there for a hot minute, from, like, mid ’89 to ’94? February of ’94.”
Dates related to the restaurant come easy to Vince Bruno. 1947: The year his father opened the Little Italy Cafe on Pike Avenue in Levy. 1948: The move to the West Roosevelt location, as well as the adoption of the restaurant’s current moniker. 1978: The move to Old Forge Road, and the year that he and his brothers, Gio, Jay and Wayne, took over. 1988: Another move, this time to Bowman Road, with Jay and a partner. 1995: The year Jay left the business to pursue wine sales (he’s still the restaurant’s distributor). Oct. 9, 2011: The day Bruno’s closed for good, or so Vince thought. And Oct. 1, 2013: The day Gio helped him bring it back to life on Main Street.
“OK,” Gio says, standing up suddenly, stubbing out his cigarette in a black plastic ash tray. “We can retreat to the cool.”
As I follow them inside the restaurant, and as we get settled at a table clad in those ever-familiar red-and-white checks, I ask them to back up to that second date: 1948. The first Bruno’s Little Italy.
“We grew up in a house that was built on the parking lot, so it was part of our home,” Gio says. (Aha, I think. Bingo.) “When I was 8 or 9 years old, I remember standing on a chair drying dishes. There was a gas burner under the sink to boil the water to wash the soap off, and then they’d be real hot, so I’d have a towel in each hand and an apron tied up to my neck so it wouldn’t make me trip. So I was a dish dryer, and I went from that to being a pizza maker rather quickly.”
“And when I came along, Roosevelt was still coming along,” Vince pipes in. “I had been hanging out in the kitchen since birth. For some reason, I’d always watch the saute person, so that’s what I wanted to do. Gio was pizza master, and I wanted to be skillet master. I just kind of took over that position at 13 and started learning, learning, learning.”
As they go on reminiscing, talking over each other as brothers tend to do, I start to piece together the Bruno brothers’ story—one that’s founded on family legacy, sure, but also on a series of near misses that’s forged in them a commitment to keeping this thing alive at all costs. I learn that, except for the in-between years—the year after the Old Forge location shuttered and the two years that eclipsed between the closing of the Bowman location and the opening of the restaurant we’re sitting in—Vince has never left Bruno’s kitchen. It’s all, he says, he’s ever known. And though Gio left the family business in 1988 to pursue a career in advertising, he’d always longed to find a way to bring Bruno’s back under the family’s control: no partners, no investors. Which brings us to today, to this restaurant, to the deli down the street: “This is my retirement,” he says, throwing up his arms and casting a glance around this space. “My retirement is on the walls here.” He pauses, quiet for a moment. “It worked out perfectly.”
And that’s just it: It did. Perhaps, if you’re one of those Arkansans who cut their teeth on Jimmy Bruno’s chicken ala Parmigiano, or if, like me, you came to it, spellbound, as an adult, you remember what it felt like when you heard the news that Bruno’s was closing. And if so, you surely remember your reaction to the news, back in 2012, that longtime patrons Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker had convinced the brothers to open downtown. And then you remember waiting. And maybe, if, say, you work in a building at the corner of Scott and Capitol, mere blocks away, you’d counted the steps from your office to the restaurant (396), hoping and praying that the brothers would decide to open for lunch. And then, God bless them, they did, by taking over the empty storefront two doors down and turning it into their eponymous deli—though they opened a year after they thought they would (a year after they signed the lease on the space). Thing is, it was on their time. Because it had to be right. Because you don’t rush 69 years worth of history.
“Dad always said, ‘You dance with who brung ya,’” Gio says, in a way that would lead you to believe that he’s quite accustomed to saying it. “We have a customer base who wants it to taste like it did when they first came to Bruno’s when they were a kid. I have two stories a night, at least—people wanting to tell me their Bruno’s story. We went on our first date here, that kind of thing.”
“I get that all the time, even when I’m just stopping at the store!” Vince says.
Which, I learn, has everything to do with that marinara. You can pretty well taste the history—decades upon decades of proprietary, passed-down know-how—when you taste that sauce. Whether it’s smothering meatballs on a hoagie roll at the deli or bubbling around a fresh-from-the-oven lasagna at the restaurant—heck, whether it’s 2004 and you’re on your third date or it’s 2014 and you’re on your first date since welcoming your firstborn—it’s the same. And I have to wonder, since I’ve only been making memories at Bruno’s for a mere dozen years, has it always been the same? Has it always been this … deliberately delicious? And if so, how?
“Oh, it’s definitely intuition to us now. We could do it in our sleep,” Gio says. “Dad never wrote anything down. He would make you watch him a couple of times, and then he’d have you do it, and if you did something wrong, he’d tell you.”
“Everyone wants me to write down measurements, and I don’t measure,” Vince says. “I was showing our manager at the deli, Pearl, today, and she said ‘Let me watch.’ I said,‘OK, but you’ve got to do it like this because I don’t know the amounts.’”
“Our dad could take this,” Gio says, picking up a salt shaker, “take the top off, pour it into his hand and then into a teaspoon, and it’d be perfect. Tablespoon, same thing. I mean, how many things do we do a handful of this …”
“… and a handful of that, yeah,” Vince finishes. “And that’s my marinara sauce, I don’t let anybody else make it because I don’t want nobody else to make it. People tell us that they’ve eaten pizza all over the world, and they like this pizza better. And this marinara.”
And that’s when I realize I’m very much and most definitely one of those people.
“That’s my grandfather,” Gianni Bruno, Vince’s son, says to me a few nights later in the main dining room. I’ve snuck away from my red-and-white-tablecloth-topped two-top, where I’ve been lingering over a cannoli, and he’s caught me staring at a framed photo of a dark-haired Jimmy Bruno leaning on a jukebox and clad in white toque, white tee, white apron, at what I imagine must be the first Bruno’s Little Italy.
“It’s OK,” he says with a laugh. “I find myself staring at it, too.”
My cheeks redden, and I smile at him, embarrassed that I’ve been caught in the act, though I’m certain it must happen often. After all, black-and-white photos cover almost every spare inch of the restaurant’s back wall. Smoked-glass mirrors interrupt the gallery every few feet, almost inviting you to picture yourself among the Bruno family faces.
“We kind of ran out of room,” Gianni says, nodding at the collection. “Thank goodness, there’s more wall space over at the deli!”
Which makes me start to ponder the connection between the two Bruno’s—between this one and the new deli. As the brothers made certain to point out to me, the food served in the main dining room is “linger food,” which might explain why so many folks feel so connected to the place. The menu at the deli, on the other hand, is the antithesis of that—it’s quick, it’s served in a box, it’s in-and-out food. The magic, then, is in the Bruno brothers’ ability to imbue even a boxed-up sandwich with seven decades of family legacy—and by “family,” I don’t just mean their own. I mean that by creating a place that feels like home and a pizza that tastes like home and a marinara that’s just so damn good, they’ve been able to make generations upon generations of Arkansans part of their brood. And as I look at the photos of Jimmy on the wall, I know he’d approve of the new place. That he’d be proud of all his sons have endured to get to this point—to this duo of family-owned storefronts on Main Street—so that his great-grandkids might one day take over as his children once did for him.
The new deli might not be a “story” place like its big sister up the street. But one thing’s for certain: It’s a place where certain editors might go to escape from it all—a place where notebooks can be speckled with marinara, and where one bite is all it takes to be lost in a hundred memories.