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Home-Style Italian at Bruno's in Santa Monica

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Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats restaurants—often obscure, ethnic, unsung spots—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Have a place she just must taste? Drop us a line.

Bruno's is one of those places you can drive by countless times and somehow never notice. Maybe it’s because your eyes gravitate to the well known steak-and-martini institution Chez Jay, across the street. Or, maybe you just assume any storefront next to a Segway rental place, and this close to the Santa Monica Pier, isn't going to be home to any kind of decent restaurant. Or perhaps, like me, you do notice Bruno’s one day and decide to wait to try it until you can find someone you know who's been. Because to you, Italian food is serious business and you're afraid to risk trying yet another red sauce place only to be disappointed. But, you never find anyone who's even ever heard of it, let alone been there. And so one night, you just go.

It's pretty crowded when my husband and I arrive a little after 8PM on a weeknight. There are a few tables filled with couples sharing wine and pasta, a family with three teenagers in a big corner booth, and a larger group celebrating something over a few pizzas at a long table along the wall. Turns out Bruno's has been here for 23 years, and it happily shows its age. The red-checkered tablecloths are made from vinyl, stained-glass pub lamps hang from the ceiling, a gargantuan framed print of the Mona Lisa watches over the dining room, and the big old puffy black horseshoe-shaped booths have come full circle and look like they could fit in nicely at a trendy new throwback cocktail lounge.

Though I do enjoy splurging on a high-end Italian meal at a swanky restaurant offering valet parking and shaved truffles, the Jersey Italian in me sometimes just wants some of the basics I grew up eating, and that’s what Bruno’s delivers. The menu is as old-school as they come, without even trying to be. Even the cheapest and chainiest Italian places these days have jumped on the burrata salad bandwagon or added a squid-ink pasta here, a walnut pesto there. Not Bruno’s. The menu is filled with staples, like lasagna, manicotti, chicken cacciatore, veal marsala, a mixed green salad and a gloriously low-brow antipasto plate of cold cuts, peppers, and marinated button mushrooms. Nary a portobello in sight.

Though there are a handful of bottles of wine to choose from (all around $18.50), the only red by the glass is a Chianti, and though we never learn the name of the producer, at $3.75 a glass, it’s not bad for the cheapest glass of wine we’ve ever seen for sale in Los Angeles.

The pizza at the next table looks tempting (and in Bruno’s simple spirit, the menu only offers six toppings), but we're not here for pizza. We both go the parmigiana route, as boring as that may sound. I get the eggplant and my husband gets the chicken. Our waiter, Michael, who's been hanging out at Bruno’s for years but only started working here a month ago, tells us that the two dishes we ordered are quite popular, but patrons seem to go for the lasagna even more often. When I ask where Bruno is, he tells me that though the owner usually waits tables and mingles with guests, he's gone back to Naples for two weeks so I’ll have to come back another time if I want to meet him. Before I can think about my next visit, a piping hot loaf of bread arrives in a green plastic basket alongside individually wrapped pats of butter. It’s so crusty and soft we devour it immedaitely. Turns out it’s made fresh in-house every day. Take that, La Brea.

We start with a Caesar salad which arrives in a big, weathered wooden bowl with metal tongs for dishing into smaller matching bowls. The crunchy pieces of romaine are tossed with lots of tangy dressing and cracked pepper, but from our table we can see the cook throwing breaded chicken cutlets into a sizzling sauté pan and a pot of sauce simmering on the stove and it reminds us not to eat the whole salad, which is big enough for four. Though the eggplant doesn’t quite live up to my Aunt Nancy’s famous (I’ve yet to find one that does), it’s still comforting and good, baked in a sweet and smooth marinara, and is super-soft without being mushy. The chicken parm, however, does rival a home-cooked version, so tender you can cut it with a fork and topped with bubbling, just-beginning-to-brown mozzarella. The tiny bowls that show up with our entrees are filled with spaghetti that’s cooked miles beyond al dente, but somehow, it’s still worth having, kind of like an Italian-dinner security blanket. During the course of the night more groups come in, a few stopping to say hello to the chef in the open kitchen, and I realize that the room is nearly filled by the time we walk out the door. I guess Bruno’s is getting noticed after all.
Lunch: $6 - $10.50
Dinner Appetizers: $4-$10
Dinner Entrees: $8-$18
310-395-5589; website

—Lizbeth Scordo

Bruno's

1652 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica, CA,

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