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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.

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.

The entrees, however, fairly screamed with flavor. The lasagna al forno ($10.95)--meaning "lasagna baked in the oven"--was virtually a cheesecake, with ricotta, mozzarella and grana cheeses layered with fennel sausage and just the right amount of marinara to create moisture. Still, the sausage was the main thing we tasted, which turned the dish into some hedonistic childhood fantasy: sausage, cheese and noodles. Who needs anything else? But that was before we tasted Harry's tagliatelle ($8.95), one of many famous dishes created at Harry's Bar in Venice. Although there may have been something in there besides cheese and butter--I did spot flecks of ham--they were buried in the mix of grana and mozzarella cheeses. Even the egg noodles had been covered with mozzarella before they were thrown under the broiler, where they unified until it became a battle to separate each forkful from the rest of the delicious mass. This was one of those dishes that was unbelievable, incredible, exquisite...for about five or six bites. After that, each bite was a love-hate deal: I wanted to keep shoveling this rich stuff into my mouth, but I was going to go into cardiac arrest if I didn't stop.

But I did stop, which is what enabled me to try the tiramisu ($4.50). This commendable but wobbly version hadn't quite set, so it threatened to slip off the plate before we could gobble it all up--which would have been a shame, because we wanted every drop of the not-too-sweet, not-too-rich dessert. The white chocolate cheesecake ($4.50), with its chocolate crust and smooth texture, was another ideal finish, although the slice was so minuscule that we thought the kitchen might be running out and trying to stretch the remainder.

The bill for two was just over fifty bucks--unheard of at the old red-sauce joints, but a bargain in suburban-Italian territory. For that we got two appetizers, a soup and a salad, two entrees and two desserts, plus a bottle of wine. It helped that the wine list is full of inexpensive choices, with three or four hitting the $40 range but most at $15 to $18. The selection's unusual--you're not going to recognize many names--but for the most part the choices are decent, everyday wines that make it easier for your wallet to return to Bruno's.

Our tastebuds had never left.
When we returned one recent Sunday night, only two or three tables were occupied, and only one waiter--a relatively new one at that--was working. But as the tables kept filling up, no additional servers appeared. Somehow, this guy handled it and even managed to make a few friends (although he forgot some details, such as bread and water). It was fun to see the sous chef bringing dishes to the tables, and hostess Donna Dwyer did a couple of juggling acts herself. And I suspect quite a few free desserts and drinks helped inspire everyone's good humor.

Our meal suffered from bad timing--the steamed mussels ($5.95), the bruschetta ($3.95), a bowl of mushroom bisque and the Caesar salad (it was so good, I couldn't resist) all arrived at the same time--but we happily munched our way through. Although the clams promised with the mussels were missing in action, the mollusks were fine, and the bisque had a strong, earthy flavor. The bruschetta, topped with a jumble of diced tomatoes and fresh basil, came on a plate streaked with balsamic; the toasted bread had been sliced as thin as lunch meat, which made it much more appealing--and easier--to eat than the usual too-thick, too-chewy Italian bread.

After we made it through that, we were glad we'd avoided the cheesier entrees. The Tuscan lamb shank ($13.95) was remarkable, the meat almost liquified, with thin ribbons of steamy garlic wafting up from the bone. And the sauce of red wine, kalamatas and tomatoes served as gravy for precisely the kind of chunky, hand-mashed potatoes a dish like this requires. We'd also ordered the linguine alla vongole ($11.95) with white clam sauce (you can choose red, too), which was blander than anything else we'd had at Bruno's (even that first soup) but still serviceable.

On my last visit to Bruno's, I finally got a plate of spaghetti with meatballs ($8.95) in red sauce. Of course, here the red is "pomodoro," which maybe a fifth of the population recognizes as the Italian word for "tomato." But it was a good tomato sauce--thick and rich, with all the right seasonings and a fresh grating of grana--and there was warm-from-the-oven focaccia to sop up any sauce that hadn't already been absorbed by the more-than-generous portion of pasta. A couple of meat-a-balls that were all meat and a glass of Chianti Classico, and I was ready to hail Caesar all over again.

Bruno's Italian Bistro, 2223 South Monaco Parkway, 757-4500. Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Sunday.

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