by Michael P. Daley
Read this one for a combination of Italian-American lore and on-the-scene reporting at Chicago's greatest restaurant. Herein expect answers to why Bruna knifed a man in her own establishment; the secret to Luciano's bruschetta; hidden connections between Love Boat hanky-panky and the Scalabrinian priesthood; an elegy for the 3-martini lunch and more... This piece originally appeared in Challenger BMX Magazine Volume 3, Issue 4. Read the PDF here. Purchase a physical copy here.
THE SIGN GLOWS like melted butter under candlelight. Snow whips in wet. You make for the door. A man is at the bar—short, well-dressed in a tie, his skin a dark tan. Italian-made striped cotton socks flow into shiny shoes that dangle just above the floor as if he were a child tucked into a dinner table. Maybe it’s a slow night, like a Tuesday, and this well-dressed man here is sitting alone at the bar under the pinkish red lights that ping softly off the salmon-colored walls haphazardly crowded with tourism posters from Siena. “Buona sera,” he says sing-songy in an Italian accent. “Hello,” you say. And then nothing. A Eurovision vocalist belts about love from tiny house speakers. You stand awkwardly. It becomes clear that you’ve never been to Bruna’s Ristorante before. “Go to the back,” he finally says forgivingly. You’ll learn soon enough that this man is no barfly.
This is Luciano Silvestri. He’s the bossman, the owner of the best restaurant in Chicago. (This is no baseless claim, I’ve gone to Bruna’s every week for several years now.) And your boyish vision of the man on the barstool dissipates when Luciano jumps to his feet to work the room, pumping arms, lasering in one-liners, drinking to the health of others—and sometimes to his own. Yes, you’ll come to understand that Luciano’s hospitality is an integral part of an unparalleled meal. And so you see that everyone wants to be his friend as a result.
But Luciano’s celebrity is only available to those who know themselves. That kind of knowledge is a scarce resource in the 21st century. Fronters need not apply, “foodies” or otherwise. Wannabe wiseguys blow in on occasion, for instance, pretending they’re tight with Luciano in front of girlfriends. These guys try to show off, speaking tourist-level Italian to the man. He’ll fire back in English—a savage castration of the Goodfellas ego. There is no safe harbor for even the checkered-tablecloth set. No, if you want to be friends with Luciano, you’ve got to be genuine. If you know what’s really important, then you know yourself.
Bruna’s is Luciano and Luciano is Bruna’s. But before the joint was inextricable with one man, it was inextricable with one woman. Bruna’s used to belong to Bruna Cani. She opened the place at 24th and Oakley Avenue—part of Chicago’s original Little Italy before Taylor Street—in 1933, the year legal liquor started flowing again. Much of what little is known about Bruna comes from legends told by old neighbor folk long dead. But like Luciano, we know Bruna was of Tuscan stock (though she was a native Michigan girl). We also know Bruna liked to do things her way.
In her day, Bruna was a boss. She came up with the recipes, she cooked, she ran the show, and, at any given time, she was playing three to ten men like they were fawning groupies. Bruna was a smokeshow. She was, according to Oakley lore, autonomous and willful—“liberated” at a time when few knew what “liberation” even looked like. Punk before punk. Hep before hep. But this sort of sensual approach was also a business strategy. Apparently, her then-husband encouraged flirtation with male customers. Bruna is rumored to have said: “My husband tells me ‘fate toccare culo figlie te… let the customers touch your ass and they will be back.’ But I let them touch me for real.”
But Bruna didn’t only groom a stable of studs. She danced across the goddamn tables like it was Montmartre 1895. She’d fling her umbrella skirt over her head for all to see her panties. Why? Because she could. Bruna didn’t care. Diners loved the show too, singing along to old songs, choral-like and drunk, their arms linked and maws wide—dumbfounded with glee as Bruna slid across the bar.
Indeed, the restaurant’s origin story speaks to Bruna’s will. She had previously opened a restaurant across the street called Orsi & Cani in the 1920s. Apparently, Bruna got in a fight with her co-owner and, to spite him, decided to open her own spot on the cusp of Prohibition’s repeal. Another version, as told by 1970s Tribune reporter Edie Cohen, is of a similar spirit. Cohen wrote that Bruna opened her own restaurant because she wanted to outdo her husband, who ran a place on Franklin Street. Either way, it was a somewhat humble beginning for Bruna’s new restaurant—lunch service only in its earliest days. But dinner service followed soon after. And the joint’s been open since, serving proper continental Italian and cozy redsauce for 87 years.
So you’ve found a table. A Bruna’s waiter whooshes in, low-key, studied and slick, like an aristocrat on the lam. “Would you like to start with a drink? Appetizer?” You’ll need a martini, yes, gin—in one of those glasses that could double as a birdbath. And, yes, an appetizer, too. In this latter regard, you can roll any which way and not go wrong. But the bruschetta is essential. Usually an entirely forgettable dish, Bruna’s is transcendent.
According to Luciano, it’s because he invented the artform. “I brought bruschetta to America. Nobody did bruschetta before me,” he boasts. At least no one can do bruschetta like this. The secret, he says, is the abundance of garlic—providing a light sting to the cold tomatoes and basil that sit upon cracker-like bread. My brother, a man of radical efficiency, usually fires in a bruschetta order before he even takes his coat off.
As you wait for your bruschetta, you take in the sometimes unbearably deep atmosphere. In the dining room, kitsch-classical murals and mirrors don the walls, inverting the traditional Italian restaurant into an untethered and beautiful dream-plane where you half-believe you’re about to meet a future version of yourself. Orange bulb lamps add to the effect, washing over the aqua and white linoleum floor. For those lucky enough to eat in the subdued front room, Bella Bruna’s portrait watches down on the bar and few tables. Yes, she hangs there on the wall in hagiographical splendor, her wrinkly cheeks and watery eyes beaming out like some adorable Italian peanut. Ironic then, when you find out that Bruna was at the center of the restaurant’s most violent episode. Looking at her kindly and old face, it’s easy to forget that to be kindly and old is just another phase in life. But I had mentioned that Bruna once had a number of suitors…
On one particular night in the late 30s or early 40s, Bruna had three different admirers at the bar hoping to score. She was playing them each, making them wait. The men didn’t like this, but being apparent masochists all, they waited. And they got a buzz on while they waited. But one of these jokers got too antsy—antsy and handsy. He burst into the kitchen and started hassling Bruna while she was cooking. “Come on baby,” maybe he said. I don’t know. The dialogue’s lost to time. But he started to get touchy and Bruna didn’t like that. This we do know.
Bruna grabs a kitchen knife and says something like: “If you don’t leave me alone—you see this knife—I’ll give it to you!” She’s holding the knife down low by her waist. But this guy doesn’t think Bruna’s got the gumption. He bearhugs Bruna, trying to force her into submission. But as the man’s arms close in, Bruna’s kitchen knife slashes straight through his femoral artery—that’s the giant, pressurized artery where your groin is. Force will be met with force.
The guy falls back through the kitchen door and back into the barroom. Blood starts spraying everywhere like a firehose. The other two Romeos at the bar see mayhem and book. But this stabbed creepster, of all things, gets embarrassed. Now Chicago is famous for rather pathetic tough guy antics, compensatory behavior for the insecurities that trail a lifetime of zero introspection. I mean, I’ve seen a ceiling pipe burst in Erie Café and water gush down on a tough guy diner who refused to move while he scarfed his steak because, “it’s just water.” But anyways, this guy at Bruna’s takes the cake. Rather than call for help, as his leg jets blood, he’s embarrassed. Maybe because he’s been stabbed by a woman—maybe because he’s got a wife at home. Either way, the guy tries to not make a scene while he sprays everywhere, and retires to the bathroom, locking the door behind.
Well, Bruna’s worried. She raps on the door. He won’t open. Blood starts gushing out from under the door. This ain’t good. Bruna calls an ambulance. “It must’ve come by mule,” Luciano jokes, “this was the 1930s or 40s.” By the time the guy got to the hospital, he was dead from blood loss—exsanguinated.
Bruna skated on any criminal charges, claiming self-defense. Things soon went back to normal. And so these were those sepia-toned days before lawsuits, when settlements were more readily drawn from the cutlery drawer.
Sometime thereafter, five thousand miles away, a young Luciano was joining an amateur bike racing team in Siena. He’d zoom along the golden-toned hills of Tuscany in his red and white racing shirt that read A. TEMPORA, the wind bristling a downswept mustache and thick hair that puffed out from his white racing hat. “I used to bike. I was an amateur, but I had a Campagnolo with a golden screw,” Luciano beams. “This is before I discovered America.”
One of the reasons that Bruna’s remains a great restaurant today is—though there is an aggressively laid-back atmosphere to the place—it is operated by a highly experienced restauranteur. “I am a professional,” Luciano says definitively. His career began with a decision to go to hotel school in Italy. His first job then took him away from his Sienese bike racing team and to a hotel in Switzerland, only to return to Italy for a summer at the Villa d’Este resort, and then off to London for a two-and-a-half-year stint. In London, he worked at La Trattoria Terrazza of Soho, known as “The Trat,” a swinging Italian restaurant of historic importance, being commonly credited with introducing a hipper kind of Italian fare to England upon opening in 1959. “I had a lot of fun in the restaurant industry,” Luciano says. “It’s hard. But I met a lot of nice people.”
After London, Luciano got a job on the Love Boat. Not the television show, but the actual cruise liner the show was based upon. From 1971 to 1976, Luciano worked the bar on the upstairs deck and the dining room downstairs. And aboard, he met a fellow Italian, a Scalabrinian priest based out of Chicago, who ran the cruise ship’s chapel (more on this priest later). Overall, life was breezy on the Love Boat, sailing the world, doing what one does while docked for 48 hours at various ports. But trade winds shifted when he met an American passenger. This was Ilona. They fell in love. Luciano left the cruise scene behind. The two moved to Chicago in November 1977.
Luciano soon found himself working at 200 E. Chestnut Street, Pronto Pronto Ristorante. He was now married. He was in America. What more could you want? But Pronto Pronto left him unfulfilled. His boss was an asshole. And it wasn’t long before Luciano had had enough. He came home one night and told Ilona: “We have to buy our own restaurant. I cannot work for this jerk!”
While Luciano was on the Love Boat, Bruna had been running her restaurant. But there was no more dancing on tables. Her male coterie had turned from hound dogs to Catholic priests. She’d become sick. Luciano says: “She was a sweet old lady. She was kooky. I think she felt she had a lot of sins to deal with. She was dying. So in old age, she always cooked for priests. She used to cook all this stuff special—lunch, dinner for a bunch of priests. And the priests would ask: ‘How much for dinner?’ She would say: ‘Nothing. Just pray for me.’”
Among the priests that befriended Bruna was a Scalabrinian, the very Scalabrinian who once served as chaplain of the Love Boat. Furthermore, this priest found himself drinking at Pronto Pronto, Luciano’s workplace, around the year 1980. On this particular night, Luciano noticed the priest at the bar: “How do I know you? Ah, the Love Boat!” The priest said: “Come down to the Italian neighborhood and we’ll show you all the Italians.” Luciano took him up on the offer. “That’s how I discovered the area,” Luciano remembers, “and then the magic Bruna’s appears.”
The priest introduced Luciano to Bruna. She was still the chef, along with her daughter. But because Bruna was sick, her daughter had to act the nurse. As a result, there wasn’t a whole lot of cooking going on between the two anymore. Bruna was ready to sell. Luciano was ready to buy. And so it came to be. Bruna sold him the restaurant in 1981. “I was in the right place at the right time,” Luciano says.
Bruna died the following year. Of her original dishes, one survives: the famous Sunday roasted chicken special. It is a dish, according to reporter Edie Cohen, that was prepared using a “secret recipe.”
But it’s only Tuesday and you’re ready to order a main dish. This is a quandary for even the most seasoned Bruna’s denizen, for nearly every dish on the menu is outstanding. That’s because Luciano developed this current menu himself. Some dishes are variations on old Bruna recipes, others completely new. “We changed the names and we changed a little bit of the recipe,” Luciano explains. “Because, over the forty years, the Italian kitchen has had a little evolution. We change the way we cook. A little more light. A little different. A little more attention paid to the ingredients.”
Chief among the entrées is the lasagna—normally not the first on anyone’s wish list and yet, like much in this place, what might appear unsophisticated is in fact a form of gnosis. My dear cousin spent his whole life coming to Bruna’s. He never thought to order the lasagna. When I forced him to try it not so long ago, his reality shattered into pieces. He left that night dazed, wandering into the snowy streets, muttering: “That was really something. That was really something.” Central here, according to Luciano, is the usage of bechamel as opposed to the oft-substituted ricotta.
Perhaps though, you need something less heavy than the lasagna. Bruna’s has the best Chicken Vesuvio in the city; the best bucatini amatriciana in the city; the best veal marsala in the city. The Vesuvio and marsala are accompanied by diced potatoes elegantly crisped. Others go in for shrimp diavola, which delivers a spice so classy it ought to come with spats. Some dishes, like Luciano’s Ravioli and the Bolognese pastas, are adaptations of age-old recipes from a childhood in Tuscany. Multiple coastal vegetarians have cited the eggplant parmigiana as the best they’ve ever had, anywhere. Most of these dishes taste as if a forgotten time were locked inside.
Luciano’s first decade in business was a hot streak. In the 1980s, Bruna’s was arguably the lunch spot in Chicago. And at that time, it was still acceptable to treat yourself with some dignity and have one, two, or maybe three stiff drinks during your lunch hour. “There was the culture to go out for lunch,” Luciano explains. “Here on the South Side, there was a lot of business at that time. Remember the three-martini lunches? All the businesspeople would come here. The more booze they’d have, the more courage they’d have to do business: ‘Okay, we’ll do it!,’ they’d shake hands [and have a deal]. Now, they only drink iced tea: ‘Okay, maybe next week. We’ll call you.’ It will never happen. It’s true. It was better when there were three-martinis.” So, Puritans took over the workplace, liquidity dithered, and the Bruna’s lunch scene died down.
This might all sound like faded glory then, another old school restaurant turned casualty of the times. But that’s not it at all. 2019 was Luciano’s best year since he bought the business from Bruna in 1981. “10% up from last year,” Luciano smiles. “I think it’s the economy is good. People have money, they go spend it. 10% up from 2018.” Nor is Bruna’s divorced from the modern world. Luciano’s daughter, Cristina, works at the restaurant when she is not exhibiting her abstract paintings around the city. Ilona, Luciano’s wife, is a sophisticated contemporary art aficionado herself.
Bruna’s sits firmly in the past but destroys any newcomer in Chicago’s food scene. Weekends are often jam-packed, especially game nights. Weekdays are steady and well-attended. Politicos love the spot. Mayors, aldermen, and precinct captains have all been common sightings over the years. Even now, Michael Madigan will slink by, gaunt and natty in high-waisted trousers. But it isn’t all powerbrokers. Chicagoans of all stripes come and go. Nurses nurse half-bottle glasses of white wine at the bar. Beat cops snag take-out bags. Construction workers, stockbrokers, graphic designers, and doctors all dine here. Families from nearby Pilsen and Little Village celebrate birthdays with their children. Hypebeasts—making the daunting journey below Madison Street—have their minds blown, bearing witness to the wabi-sabi sanctity of a place that could never exist in Logan Square or the West Loop.
Yes, this is living. So why not cap it off with a dessert? There are a number of options, but really only two. Should you want something light, then a cannoli. These are not made in-house, but are prepared in-house, such that they are still fresh. One of the house staff prepares this dessert, and he will adorn the rim of your plate with a cryptic though pleasant message: “You are a kind person” being one example. However, should you go in on richness, there is but one choice: Tiramisu. This is homemade each day by Luciano himself. Fluffy and extraordinary.
You look around. Somehow, you’re the last diner in the joint. Time to go and that’s okay. You’re full, slightly drunk, and no longer wondering if Chicago still has that ancient magic. But Luciano walks up. He shakes your hand. He thanks you for coming and he means it. He offers you an after-dinner drink on the house. Averna—some Sicilian amaro to help with digestion.
You drink the amaro. There is not much else to do with your night now, having achieved everything one could seek. You look up at the portrait of kindly old Bruna. She winks to you that truth of truths that cannot be named. Time dissipates. You drink again. You close your eyes. When you open them, you’re already driving away, watching the Bruna’s sign glow through the midnight flurry like melted butter under candlelight.
**********Michael P. Daley is a writer and cultural historian. Daley’s work usually concerns politics, subcultures, crime, and art. His books include Bobby BlueJacket: The Tribe, The Joint, The Tulsa Underworld and Enjoy The Experience: Homemade Records 1958-1992. Daley is also the founder and publisher of First To Knock.