Attorney-turned-food-critic Jeffrey Steingarten has made a tidy sum off his critically acclaimed book, The Man Who Ate Everything, a chronicle of his struggle to overcome inborn prejudices against kimchee, anchovies, and the like, in preparation for his new job at Vogue. I admire Steingarten's lighthearted enthusiasm for tackling his culinary phobias head-on: Too many of us, regardless of our age, are happy to entertain the irrational food dislikes we've held since childhood. Still, this is not a text I could have authored. As anyone who knows me will attest, I seem to have come into this world with an innate eagerness to try nearly anything, gastronomically speaking.
But of all the strange, exotic, and generally wonderful foods that I'll happily polish off, from kulfi to sweetbreads and beyond, Italian food -- specifically, pasta -- remains my hands-down favorite. Whether it was the praise I got as a youngster for slurping up my spaghetti at Chef Boyardee's ristorante or the pleasure I took in watching my grandmother roll and stuff her own ravioli (which she served in a rich, brown tomato sauce made with pig tails, neck bones, and sausage), a good plate of pasta has always made me one happy kid.
Which brings us to Bruno's Ristorante, a squat little storefront just off Clark Avenue on the near West Side. If you miss the sign, just slow down and let your nostrils be your guide: The pungent aroma of garlic will unfailingly lead you to Bruno's door. If you are lucky, you may even be able to find a place for yourself on the other side of that door. The tiny bar and miniature dining room can't possibly accommodate more than 40 diners at once, and most times, it seems that at least 60 folks have gotten there before you. And, while owner and former Browns' training facility chef Bruno DiSiena or members of his staff will be happy to take your dinner reservations, that doesn't mean you won't still have a lengthy wait. We, for instance, showed up promptly for our 8:30 p.m. reservations one Saturday and still waited 45 minutes for a seat at one of the handful of little tables.
But once we got settled in, the staffers did their best to make up for lost time. Basket after red-napkin-lined basket, stuffed with slices of warm, crusty ciabatta bread, appeared at the table, along with little mounds of garlic-and-herb-infused butter and endless refills of our soft drinks. (The sophisticated, deco-style bar was well-stocked with beer and liquor, and a wine list featured a concise selection of domestic and Italian reds and whites, most priced at less than $30. On this occasion, we decided to skip the firewater and opt for the caffeinated sugar-water instead.) Our orders were taken promptly, and when they were slow to come out of the kitchen, at least we got frequent updates on their progress. And we didn't have to ask twice to have our leftovers (and boy, did we have leftovers) packed up and readied to go. In fact, the friendly, unpretentious atmosphere here goes a long way toward explaining Bruno's popularity, despite the long waits, frequent kitchen delays, and the occasional lukewarm food. That, and the excellent pasta, of course.
Take, for instance, the killer lasagna: more than a half-dozen layers of thick homemade noodles interspersed with seasoned ricotta, grated Romano, and a blend of finely ground veal, beef, and pork, all slathered with a first-rate marinara and capped with a thick covering of nutty provolone. The mammoth serving was delicious, with each fresh-tasting ingredient highlighting the flavor of the others. We especially liked the marinara: a sweet-tart blend with overtones of summer and more than a whiff of garlic. That same sauce was ladled over a big platter of perfect Melanzane ala Parmigiana (eggplant Parmesan), meaty slices of breaded eggplant wrapped around creamy ricotta cheese and topped, again, with loads of melted provolone.
Besides creating what I daresay are the best versions of lasagna and eggplant Parmesan around, the kitchen also turns out a superior fried calamari, featuring some of the mildest, sweetest, and most tender squid ever to occupy a plate, all done up in an excellent crisp breading and served with more of Bruno's well-balanced marinara on the side. (If you count an irrational fear of calamari among your own personal food phobias, Bruno's would most certainly be the place to learn to overcome it.)
Other top-notch offerings included pillowy homemade gnocchi, slathered with a cheesy, garlicky tomato-and-red-wine sauce, and Bruno's delicious pizzas -- thick-crusted beauties covered with a delectable tomato sauce, oodles of cheese, and plenty of shiny toppings. Savory Italian wedding soup was full of tiny tender meatballs bobbing in a rich broth. Three sausage-stuffed hot banana peppers were wonderfully incendiary, although a bit light on the filling. And a generous antipasto platter, with thinly sliced mortadella, sopresetta (imported salami), and an outrageously meaty prosciutto, along with an abundance of marinated black olives, some crumbs of creamy aged provolone, and a few bits of pickled vegetables, was a suitably rustic start to our homey pasta entrées.
When the kitchen turns to other classic Italian dishes, though, its rhythm seems to falter. If the Gamberi con Aglio e Olio e Peppe -- five chewy shrimp, a few bits of red pepper, and an oily sauce on a mound of capellini -- was lackluster, then the Bistecca al Funghetto -- three small medallions of beef in a raw-tasting burgundy wine sauce, with slices of ho-hum white button mushrooms -- was downright boring. Vitello ala Carciofi, one of the menu's two veal offerings, also was not all it could have been: While the Marsala-and-cream sauce was a winner, the five thin bits of veal and the handful of quartered artichoke hearts were nothing special, and compared to the quality and portion size of some of the other offerings, at $13.95 the dish didn't seem like much of a deal.
Besides the fresh-from-the-oven bread and herb butter, entrées come with routine tossed salads of torn romaine, cucumber, and (this time of year, at least) mushy tomato. On one visit, the housemade balsamic vinaigrette dressing was mellow and rich; on another, it was too sharp for our tastes. And we are still trying to determine what the odd garnish of a few tricolored rotini was meant to contribute. At first, we thought the cold pasta bits had fallen onto the salad by mistake, but when they showed up again on a second visit, we had to assume their presence was intentional.
Final touches normally include tiramisu and a small assortment of cheesecakes made by Bruno's mother. But much to our disappointment, Mom was taking an undoubtedly well-earned vacation in Florida during the time of our visits. We passed up the bakery cakes and pies that were filling in for the homemade treats during Mom's absence, finishing up instead with cups of robust espresso and cappuccino, made with Bruno's imported Italian coffee beans.
But later that night, as I hovered over the kitchen sink, downing forkfuls of leftover lasagna by the light of the autumn moon, any lingering sense of deprivation faded away. With pasta this good, I ask you, who needs dessert, anyway?
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