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Bruno’s Little Italy in Little Rock (Pulaski County) is one of the most well-known restaurants in central Arkansas, serving authentic Neapolitan food since 1949 and introducing hand-tossed pizza to Arkansas. It was founded by Vincent “Jimmy” Bruno and continues in the twenty-first century with his sons and grandson, although it has operated in several locations with brief interruptions over the years. Known for its fine food and also for the many photos of celebrities on the walls, it has been recognized as having the best Italian food in the United States.
Giovanni Bruno emigrated from Naples, Italy, in 1903 to join his brother in opening one of New York’s first pizzerias—actually a bakery from which they served pizzas. He was a talented poet and songwriter and a friend of Enrico Caruso, the famous tenor and fellow Neapolitan, who was godfather to his daughter. Giovanni’s son, Jimmy, was born in 1918 and from the age of six was taught to cook the pizzas and other Italian dishes with recipes from the old country. His childhood friends misunderstood the family nickname “Vinnie,” and the name “Jimmy” stuck.
Years later, as a staff sergeant, Jimmy Bruno was stationed at Camp Robinson in Arkansas during World War II. He was noted there as not only a chef, but also as a singer and master of ceremonies at the United Service Organizations (USO) center for entertaining servicemen. After the war, he joined in opening a pizzeria in Chicago, Illinois, but left due to attempted mob interference. He returned to North Little Rock (Pulaski County) and opened the Little Italy Café in Levy in 1948. He moved the restaurant to Little Rock in 1949, and it became Bruno’s Little Italy.
Jimmy married Ernestine Shoults in 1951. They had three sons: James Ernest (Jay), Gio Vanni (Gio), and Vincenzo Gennaro (Vince).
For twenty-nine years, Bruno’s was located on Roosevelt Road, where Jimmy introduced hand-tossed pizza and had a large window in the kitchen so customers could watch him twirl the dough in the air; he, and later son Gio, also demonstrated the technique on television. The restaurant always offered a large variety of Neapolitan dishes in addition to pizza. Jimmy also entertained customers by occasionally strolling through the restaurant singing popular songs in his fine baritone voice. The walls were covered with autographed photos of a variety of Hollywood and other celebrities and politicians who had visited the restaurant over the years.
The restaurant has received numerous awards, including the Great Gold Cup Trophy of Honor awarded in 1963 by the Fair of Rome for the best Italian food in the United States; it shared this honor with famous New York restaurant Mamma Leone’s. It also received the Gold Medal and Diploma of Merit for Fine Cuisine and Gastronomy from the Fair of Rome. As acting governor of Arkansas, Bob Riley proclaimed January 19, 1973, as Chef Bruno Day, and Jimmy Bruno was named Chef Supreme Laureate of Arkansas.
The restaurant moved from Roosevelt Road to Old Forge Road in west Little Rock in 1978. As Jimmy’s health declined, management continued under his wife, Ernestine, with sons Jay, Gio, Vince, and stepson Wayne Gilchrist. Jimmy died in 1984 at age sixty-five. Due to financial struggles, Bruno’s closed for a time in May 1987.
Bruno’s Little Italy reopened on Bowman Road in 1988. After more than twenty years there, it was closed for a period. Gio and Vince Bruno reopened the restaurant in 2013 in downtown Little Rock on Main Street, where it has been restored to its previous popularity and success. It still displays the photos of celebrities and family and maintains the atmosphere of the original restaurant. Bruno’s was featured on the Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives in 2018.
For additional information:
Bruno, Gio Vanni. “A History of Bruno’s Little Italy.” (Unpublished).
Bruno’s Little Italy. http://www.brunoslittleitaly.com/ (accessed December 12, 2018).
W. W. Satterfield
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 12/26/2018
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