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One of my litmus tests of an American-Italian restaurant is its Caesar--even though the salad was actually invented in Mexico (albeit by an Italian) and worked its way across the border without ever going overseas. Ten years ago you couldn't find a Caesar on most Italian menus here--much less in Italy--but today it's more common than spaghetti and meatballs.
That just shows how much Italian restaurants--in this country, at least--have changed over the past decade.
Today the mom-and-pop shops, the red-sauce joints that evoked The Godfather with their wicker-covered Chianti bottles and red-and-white-checked tablecloths, are nearly extinct. Once, every neighborhood had a spot where fusillades of Italian expressions poured from the kitchen when a waiter swung the door open, where a garlicky hostess would hug you and ask, "Did you get enough to eat?" Now those places are few and far between.
2223 S. Monaco Parkway
Denver, CO 80222
Region: Southeast Denver
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What's replaced them? A genre I think of as suburban Italian--even when the restaurant is located within city limits. A sub-Ital eatery is mom-and-pop gone upscale, a casual place that serves both red sauce and lamb shank, is reasonably priced and oozes neighborhood charm.
A sub-Ital chef is sometimes straight from Roma, but it's just as likely that he is a she (virtually unheard of in the old school) and is a Culinary Institute of America graduate. Sometimes there are tablecloths checkered in red and white, but the restaurant's designer calls it "vermillion and eggshell." And sometimes you can get a plate of spaghetti with meatballs; more often than not, however, you're looking at shelling out big bucks for penne with a sun-dried-tomato cream sauce. But first comes the Caesar. If it's creamy or tastes even vaguely of mayonnaise, I know the rest of the meal is going to stink.
My first bite of the exemplary Caesar at Bruno's Italian Bistro reminded me why this salad ($4.75, or $2 with an entree) became so popular in the first place: the gratifying textures of fresh, crisp romaine and croutons were redolent with a fair amount of garlic, a little salty, and a little sour and rich with one of the grana--the class of Italian hard cheeses such as Asiago, parmigiano-reggiano and lodigiano.
The meal that followed the Caesar proved that Bruno's is a true leader in the local sub-Ital scene, with a kitchen that turns out winning versions of old Italian standards without surrendering to yuppified silliness.
Bruno's is the latest in a series of ill-fated restaurants--remember Mostly Seafood? Gourmet Seafood? Marvin Gardens?--to occupy this plaza space at Evans and Monaco. Initially owned by the Masters, proprietors of the popular Mel's Bar and Grill in Cherry Creek, the cozy Bruno's is now under the watchful eye of Tom Mirabito, a former New Yorker, a CIA grad and the person most associated with the well-regarded but now-closed Cafe Milan.
"I started working in this crazy business when I was fourteen," says Mirabito. "I went to school, worked at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, created a line of frozen seafoods for a Seattle fish company. Here I've worked at the Quorum, Chateau Pyrenees, Falcone's. I've been around." And how: He also once owned a deli in Aurora named The American Hero and took a "sabbatical" after Cafe Milan to work part-time at Andolini's sports bar so he could spend more time with his kids.
Six weeks ago, though, he bought a majority of Bruno's from the Masters and settled in. Although he promoted the sous chef, Tom Liotta, to head chef and tweaked a few recipes, as well as adding several more to what had been a smallish roster, for the most part he's kept the staff and restaurant unchanged. "I'm going to do a little bit of fixing up the place," he says. "But, really, I like the dining room just fine."
So do I. A snug mix of old and new decorated with garlic braids and oversized bottles of port, warm walls painted a color halfway between olive and avocado, and Martha Stewartish touches--I can hear her saying, "If you have a few leftover flowerpots, fill them with uncooked pasta to create a lovely wall decoration"--Bruno's space is quintessential suburban Italian, even if it does technically fall within Denver. And the menu fits right into the sub-Ital category, with some classics tucked in among the new-wave.
For starters, there was that Caesar. The calamari Bruno we ordered as an appetizer ($5.25) on our first visit has since been elevated to entree status ($10.50)--a good move. The pliant rings of squid were awash in a sea of puttanesca, all garlic and capers with a hint of kalamatas and just enough spicy kick to make a quick hello but not hang around. Our other appetizer, the homemade mozzarella ($5.25), was tasty but will be even better once Mirabito removes (as he's promised to) the slices of crunchy, underripe tomatoes that detracted from the creamy, delicate cheese.
After those starters and the salad, the bland soup (which comes with the entrees unless you prefer a salad) was a disappointment. Billed as a squash soup, the ideal comfort food for fall, the liquid was more cream than anything else and had very little squash to offer.