A Brief History
by Gio Vanni Bruno
Between 1900 and 1905, brothers Nicola, Gennaro and Vincenzo Bruno (sons of Stanislas Bruno) each arrived in the United States from Naples, Italy. Vincenzo soon returned to Naples, but his brothers remained here and encouraged another of their brothers, Giovanni Bruno, to join them in America. Giovanni arrived on the boat at Ellis Island sometime between 1903 and 1907. It is two of the three brothers, Gennaro and Giovanni, that my father credited with helping introduce Pizza as a commercial product in the United States by opening one of the first pizzerias in New York City. Nicola remained proprietor of an Italian grocery store.
My father was Vincent “Jimmy” Bruno, Giovanni’s son. Giovanni (6/21/1883-7/9/1950) was considered an extraordinary chef and baker (at one point he was supposedly head of the local baker’s union), but was probably better known and revered as a gifted Neapolitan poet and lyricist. He was friends with the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (Caruso was godfather to my Aunt Clara) and wrote several published tribute poems in Caruso’s honor.
According to my father, from age six he worked and learned in the kitchen of his father’s restaurant and bakery. Coming from a lineage that reportedly cooked for the kings of Italy, he mastered the authentic recipes of Italian cuisine handed down through his family, as well as studying under other renowned chefs.
Even as a child, Jimmy was sent out by his father to teach the skill of pizza-making to others for a fee. While serving as a staff sergeant in the army during World War II, wearing both hats of chef (in the mess hall) and entertainer/emcee (with the USO), he was stationed at North Little Rock’s Camp Robinson, getting his first taste of Arkansas.
Upon leaving the service, he and some of his army buddies opened the first pizzeria in Chicago’s famous Loop, as part of the Yacht Club at 421 South Wabash Avenue. It was a turbulent time in Chicago, with organized crime trying to sell protection to or take over many legitimate businesses. This influenced Jimmy’s decision, after less than two years there, to return to Arkansas and start the Little Italy Cafe in Levy in 1947/1948.
In May 1949, he moved to 3400 West Roosevelt in Little Rock, and Bruno’s Little Italy was born. The location, on what was then the main highway through the city, had formerly been Harry’s Fried Chicken and, according to Dad, had been owned by three different Harrys. Eventually he added an extra dining room and built his house on the back parking lot.
For the next 29 years at that location, with a menu full of authentic Neapolitan entrees as well as pizza, Jimmy Bruno established a business whose fame spread all over the nation; attracting tourists, gourmets, famous politicians and celebrities to our fair state.
Bruno’s achieved acclaim in several national magazines and restaurants guides (i.e. Ford Times, AAA) and was the first Italian restaurant to be chosen by Darnell’s “Guide to Good Eating in the South,” listed and classified as 99th of America’s 12,000 most popular eating establishments.
In June 1963, Bruno’s was awarded the Great Plaque of Honor for Industrial Achievement, the Gold Medal and Diploma of Merit for Fine Cuisine and Gastronomy and the Great Gold Cup Trophy of Honor for the best Italian food in the United States by the prestigious Fair of Rome (tying with Mama Leone’s in New York City).
As his uncle and father brought pizza to America, Dad brought it to the South, at first having to teach his customers how to pronounce the word. He was also the first man ever to show how a pizza is made on television. For years he delighted children and adults alike by tossing the pizza dough into the air and preparing his wares behind a glass window visible to all his patrons. Generations grew up being greeted by the hefty, personable restaurateur and watching him and later his sons twirl the flattened pizza dough.
He is also remembered fondly by customers who were treated to his baritone singing voice as he strolled around the restaurant, microphone in hand, singing popular standards along to instrumental record albums he collected decades before karaoke became fashionable.
Jan. 19, 1973 was designated Chef Bruno Day throughout the state by proclamation of then Lieutenant Governor Bob Riley, and Dad was named Chef Supreme Laureate of the state of Arkansas.
In 1978, as the businesses along Roosevelt Road declined, Bruno’s Little Italy moved to 1309 Old Forge Road in west Little Rock. With his sons Jay, Gio, Vince and stepson Wayne Gilchrist carrying on management and food preparation, Jimmy had to assume an advisory role due to his declining health. He died in 1984 at age 65.
Bruno’s Little Italy continued in business at that location with his wife, Ernestine Bruno, at the helm, until May 1987, when increasing high overhead and the real estate crunch of the 80s forced them to close.
December 28, 1988, marked the re-opening of Bruno’s Little Italy with brothers Jay and Vince — financially backed by Little Rock businessman Scott Wallace (during this period, it was a d/b/a name under Wallace and Wallace, Inc.). Featuring an almost identical menu and many of the trappings from older sites, it was located at the Colonnade shopping center on Bowman Curve in west Little Rock for more than 20 years and seated around 100 people. Jay left the business in the early 90s to pursue a career in wine sales, leaving Vince as head chef/manager.
In October 2011, Bruno’s Little Italy once again closed its doors due to a failing economy and Little Rock’s shift further west, however it was still a thriving business at its closure.
Executive Chef Vince Bruno and his brother Gio Bruno, along with returning employees from previous locations that included now-retired Pasta Chef Harold Woodbury, reopened Bruno’s Little Italy in October 2013, in a beautifully remodeled facility at 310 Main Street in downtown Little Rock. Together we continue the tradition of bringing fine Italian food to our customers.
Thanks to a shared vision with Jimmy Moses, Rett Tucker and Tommy Lasiter, Bruno’s now resides in part of the historic Mann on Main project. We are proud to participate in the revitalization of Main Street and happy to serve the patrons of central Arkansas once again.