Bruno's Revival On Main Street To Mix Old, New

On an uncommonly pleasant August afternoon, two workers labored to perfect the stain on a handsome wood bar facing the entrance of Bruno’s Little Italy, while others painted a few yards away.

Gio Bruno excitedly noted that a metal railing separating the restaurant from the pavement on Main Street had been erected in the few hours since he had last visited the site the day before. His brother Vince toured what will be the kitchen as Gio pointed to the locations for the steam table, dishwashing station, refrigerator.

In about six weeks — the earliest that they can open the restaurant is Sept. 17, Gio says — Bruno’s will again operate under the ownership and authority of the family that founded it in 1948 (or thereabouts; signs and collective memories vary).

This iteration of the beloved restaurant, on the ground floor of the Mann Lofts at 310 Main, will help anchor the redevelopment taking place along Main Street in downtown Little Rock. The Mann Lofts occupy a 30,000-SF annex to the building that once housed Blass Department Store. That 112,000-SF building, at 322 Main, is being transformed into Mann on Main, a $22 million joint venture by Moses Tucker Real Estate and the Doyle Rogers Co.

Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker are good friends of the Brunos and, Gio said, were once-a-week diners at the restaurant at its previous location, 315 N. Bowman Road. Scott Wallace had bought the restaurant in 1987, after the 1984 death of Jimmy Bruno, founder and father of Gio and Vince, but money troubles doomed it and it closed in the fall of 2011.

The Brunos — wisely — retained ownership of the name “Bruno’s Little Italy” and the recipes. Although those recipes, years of goodwill and name recognition are the foundation for the brothers’ investment, Bruno’s won’t be a full-scale reincarnation.

The menu will feature the old family favorites and the restaurant will have the Bruno’s “pizza window,” through which customers can watch the tossing part of hand-tossed pizza. The specials, however, will feature the creations of head chef Dominic Bruno, Gio’s middle son, and Dominic’s friend Josh Kerns. “They’re going to be the young bloods,” Gio said.

In a phone interview, Dominic, who started his culinary career at Bruno’s at the age of 18 and has been cooking professionally for the past 10 years, said patrons could expect to see an emphasis on Bruno’s basics but also specials, with a focus on local and seasonal ingredients, to keep the offerings lively. He also wants to offer three-course wine dinners.

Dominic, 28, previously worked at two well-reviewed restaurants in Portland, Ore.: Clyde Common under Chef Chris DiMinno and Park Kitchen under Chef Scott Dolich, both of whom are stars in the culinary firmament.

“We’re certainly trying to uphold the standards of the past,” Dominic said of his plans for Bruno’s, “but I also want to see a movement forward, an evolution to keep things fresh, keep people interested.”

In addition to dinner, Bruno’s is planning to serve lunch for the first time in decades, and Gio is working on including on the menu a few gluten-free dishes. Bruno’s dinner hours will be 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and, once the team has a few weeks under its belt, lunch will be served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Gio and Vince also plan to be open from 4 to 5 p.m. for to-go orders, and Gio said that the restaurant would be available for event catering on Monday nights.

Bruno’s will have seating for 99 — 24 on the patio, 68 inside and seven at that handsome bar — and will employ 25 to 30 in a mix of part-time and full-time work. Gio said the restaurant had had a number of skilled and loyal employees over the years and was planning to bring some of them back.

Also not forgotten in the decor will be the photos of the famous visiting Bruno’s over the years, people like Robert Mitchum, Muhammad Ali and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

The Brunos’ investment in the new restaurant includes $280,000 in build-out costs, a $225,000 equipment loan from Arkansas Capital Corp. and the rollover of Gio’s $100,000 401(k). Gio has retired from his communications and design job at Arkansas Blue Cross & Blue Shield.

Gio and Vince both said they weren’t reviving Bruno’s for the money. “We’re in this because we love it,” Vince said. But Gio said he’d like to earn enough money to finance his vision of a pizza-only takeout restaurant in west Little Rock.

Said Vince: “The one thing I don’t want to lose is the warmth and atmosphere of an independent business.”