Bruno’s Little Italy
This Arkansas institution boasts a rich family heritage over generations of pizza making—and its latest location is helping revive a modern-day downtown.
Just after the turn of the century, in 1903, Giovanni Bruno emigrated from Naples, Italy, landing in New York and opening a bakery with his brother, where they sold pizza. His son, Vincenzo (known to everyone as Jimmy), took fast to the trade, learning to cook pizzas at age six and within years teaching others in the city. Later, after serving as a sergeant in WWII, where he was stationed in Arkansas, he returned to the area, opening up Little Italy Cafe in Levy, eventually earning enough money to nab a building in the state’s capital, Little Rock, and opening Bruno’s Little Italy.
The business became a resounding success—even though Jimmy had to explain to locals how to even pronounce the name of this newfangled food called pizza. He remained the pizza patriarch there until his death in 1984, passing along the trade to his own sons, Gio Vanni, Vince and Jay, who all worked in the business from childhood. But the inherited skills required went beyond recipes; it was more a mindset, a focus on great food and personal interaction with customers. “I’m a lot like my dad, walking the floor every night and talking to customers—and I love what I do, 100%,” Vince says. “No one does that anymore, so we love bringing that personal touch.”
In fact, though the pizzeria—relocated several times over the years but, since 2013, helping revive the previously desolate downtown Little Rock—has won countless awards over the years, it’s this achievement that resonates with the brothers. “The thing we’re most proud of is that everybody here has a story: We went on our first date here, got engaged here, have celebrated our kid’s birthday here every year,” Gio Vanni says. “That’s the most satisfying thing—and when I say it happens every night, that’s no exaggeration!”
Though the business is well-known to locals, a late-2018 spot on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives exploded its name (and wildly popular lasagna and toasted ravioli) across the nation. But the brothers wouldn’t think of resting on their laurels, taking a break or disappointing loyal fans. “People still come in every day saying this is the first place they had pizza, or they’ve been coming here since before I was born and it still tastes the same,” Gio Vanni says. “We take care to make things just right. I’m not an entrepreneur, I’m a proprietor. If we’re open, I’m here.”
By Tracy Morin