Restaurant News & Reviews

Dining review: Bruno’s Italian Bistro offers a refined take on the traditional Italian repertoire

Bruno's Italian Bistro serves a mahi "Tuscan" with shrimp, cannellini beans and andouille sausage in a light tomato-tinged broth.
Bruno's Italian Bistro serves a mahi "Tuscan" with shrimp, cannellini beans and andouille sausage in a light tomato-tinged broth. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Since 2010, Bruno Seafood and Steaks has been a prime dining destination – many would say the prime dining destination – in northern Wake County. It’s no exaggeration to say that the name Bruno is practically synonymous with fine dining in that neck of the woods.

So when owner/chef Bruno Peros opened a second restaurant called Trattoria Italiana by Bruno in Wake Forest, it was an instant hit, right?

Not exactly. Both times I visited recently, a year and a half after the restaurant’s opening, just a handful of the restaurant’s 20 available tables were occupied. And one of those visits was prime time on a Saturday night.

Peros, who worked in some of New York’s top steakhouses (including Peter Luger and Sparks) before moving South to open Bruno, thinks his latest venture’s name is a big part of the problem.

“It confuses some people,” he says. “They don’t realize that Trattoria Italiana by Bruno is a restaurant.”

He’s got a point, especially when you consider the fact that the place doesn’t look like a typical restaurant from the outside. It’s located in a converted circa 1930 Craftsman cottage.

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Bruno’s Italian Bistro is located in a converted circa 1930 Craftsman cottage in Wake Forest. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

So Peros is changing the name to Bruno’s Italian Bistro. At least for now, everything else about the restaurant remains the same: a mostly traditional Italian menu supplemented by a substantial list of daily changing specials, served by a small-town-friendly wait staff in a charming homelike setting.

The main menu offers a refined take on the traditional Italian restaurant repertoire, from a shareable Caesar salad with shaved parmigiano to a proper spaghetti carbonara made with pancetta (a little more of which wouldn’t be amiss) and sauced with a raw egg cooked by the heat of the pasta. The usual veal suspects – francese, piccata, marsala and parmesan – are noticeably absent, but you can get their chicken counterparts. There’s also a flounder francese that has proven popular, as well as the obligatory pan-seared salmon and a rich, velvety seafood bisque.

Seafood lovers should also pay close attention when the waiter recites the nightly specials. You might net one of the best crab cakes around, packed with jumbo lumps and just enough filler to hold them together, pan-seared to a lacy brown turn. Or mahi “Tuscan” with shrimp, cannellini beans and andouille sausage (a little poetic license with “Tuscan,” but tasty) in a light tomato-tinged broth. Fish and shellfish presentations typically account for half of the dozen or so appetizer and entree choices. Other recent seafood specials have included flounder oreganata, lobster ravioli and pappardelle with smoked salmon.

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Bruno's Italian Bistro serves one of the best crab cakes around, packed with jumbo lumps and just enough filler to hold them together, pan-seared to a lacy brown turn. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Fans of the superb steaks at Peros’ other restaurant who are disappointed to find no red meat on the regular menu here will find consolation in the 8-ounce filet mignon that has become a permanent fixture on the specials list. The chef has found an ingenious solution to the lack of a proper grill in the bistro’s tiny kitchen, too: He sears the filet on a hot stone specially made for the purpose and serves it on the stone. The result, expertly seasoned and precisely cooked to order, is a testament to the erstwhile Peter Luger grill man’s mastery of his craft.

The chef turns out a mean meatball, too: fine-textured, flavorful and big as a tennis ball, served two to an order beneath a blanket of marinara and grated parmesan.

Surprisingly, it was beef – in the form of heavily seasoned brisket that overwhelmed an otherwise solid presentation of butternut squash ravioli – that accounted for the only dud I encountered over the course of my two visits. Make that a double dud: Without the beef, the dish would have been a vegetarian option on the list that otherwise had none that night.

The presentation was so contrary to all my previous experience with Peros’ cooking, in fact, that I asked our server if the chef was in the kitchen that night. Turns out he was out of the country, visiting his family in Croatia. Even in his absence, the kitchen crew gave a good accounting of themselves, with that one exception.

In fact, my only other quibble isn’t actually about the food itself or the service. It’s about that long list of specials. I don’t know about you, but by the time the waiter has finished reciting them all, I’ve usually forgotten several of the options. It would be helpful to have a printed list, and in this age of cheap printers, there’s no reason not to.

OO, now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s talk dessert. If you’re a chocoholic, you’ll stop listening as soon as your server says “chocolate overload,” and traditionalists won’t regret opting for the cannoli. As for me, I’ll have the locally baked limoncello cake.

The restaurant’s exterior may be confusing to some, but the renovated interior of the old house exudes cozy charm. The rooms of the old house have been transformed into three dining rooms and a bar just inside the entrance. Time-burnished hardwood floors, fireplaces and other period details, combined with ladder-back chairs, votive candles and French bistro towels for napkins, make for a setting that can only be called romantic.

I’d happily recommend Bruno’s Italian Bistro for a Valentine’s Day dinner, in fact, but with one caveat: They don’t accept reservations for parties of two. Then again, if the sign out front hasn’t yet been changed to reflect the restaurant’s new name, you may just be able to walk in and get a table.

1248 S. Main St., Wake Forest

919-263-8457

bistrobybruno.com

Cuisine: Italian

Rating: 1/2

Prices: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: casually romantic conversion of a 1930s-era Craftsman cottage

Noise level: low

Service: friendly and attentive

Recommended: seafood bisque, crab cake, meatballs, seafood specials, filet mignon, limoncello cake

Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday (Monday dinner service to be added soon)

Reservations: accepted only for parties of five or more

Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio dining on the porch, weather permitting; parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

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