In August 2007, I found a flyer on my door tempting me with a 20 percent discount at a new Italian restaurant called Bruno's on Madison near Cleveland. It was on my list of "places to go" for over a year before I finally went for lunch with two friends recently. The minute I walked inside I thought, Why did it take me so long to come here?
The small dining area is a sunny yellow and is adorned with simple, rustic paintings. The tables are covered with white butcher paper, and each table has a small glass with crayons. What Bruno's lacks in curb appeal, it more than makes up for in atmosphere, taste, value, and service.
Bruno is Kent Bruno Russell, a 25-year veteran of the restaurant industry. He worked in management at Burger King, Steak & Ale, Olive Garden, and On the Border before finally realizing his dream of owning his own Italian restaurant. "Ever since I was 12 years old, I've told people that I was going to open an Italian restaurant," Russell says.
Bruno's, like Russell, is laid-back and welcoming — a perfect fit for Midtown. "It suits me," says Russell, who bought a "big, old Midtown house" 11 years ago. When looking for the perfect spot for his restaurant, Russell considered several buildings in Midtown, but for one reason or another, they didn't work out. While getting gas at the Circle K across the street, Russell noticed a "For Rent" sign in the window of the former Madison Country Kitchen. "I called the next day, and the rest is history," he says.
Although the area around Cleveland and Madison is best known for its Vietnamese restaurants, the neighborhood has embraced his Italian fare. Medical Center employees fill the dining room at lunch, and local residents filter in for dinner. The atmosphere in the evening is very relaxed. The lights are turned down low, jazz floats from the speakers, and candles dot the tables.
As manager (and kitchen manager) of several restaurants, Russell had to know how to make every dish on the menu. This on-the-job training is what gave him the expertise and confidence to create original recipes. "I messed around with ingredients in my kitchen at home and perfected my recipes," he says. Russell decided to start with the basics at Bruno's and go from there. Most recently, he added garlic chicken and garlic shrimp to the menu.
Russell wanted his dishes to be simple and well-balanced and have a good aroma. He is especially proud of his lasagna and boasts that it is 10 times better than any lasagna at big-name chain restaurants. The lunch and dinner menus are the same, but portion sizes are a bit bigger and the prices are a bit higher at dinner. Monday through Friday, Bruno's offers a lunch special that includes a choice of lasagna, beef or cheese ravioli, chicken parmigiana, manicotti, or sandwich and a side salad or soup for $6.99. Whether you go for lunch or dinner, don't miss dessert. One of Russell's customers, Katy Berry, delivers delicious treats to the restaurant such as a white chocolate mousse cake.
Longtime friends and family make up the backbone of Bruno's staff. Russell's son, Addison, 22, who got his start at Napoleon Yates downtown (which is owned by Russell's father-in-law) works in the kitchen.
"Addison can really rock-and-roll in the kitchen," Russell says with a laugh. "He's already bragging that he's better than me."
In the front of the house is another star, waitress Mike Stokes. Russell worked with Stokes at Olive Garden and happened to run into her two weeks before opening. "I told her what I was up to, and she said she wanted to be a part of it," Russell says.
Russell knows that good service makes all of the difference. "I want my customers to walk out the door thinking about their next visit," he says.
I, for one, can't wait.
Bruno's Italian Restaurant, 1354 Madison (726-0770)