This is my kind of circus!
Satan and the Grim Reaper walk into a pizzeria. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Punchline? No one bats an eyelash. Why would they? Pizza is synonymous with culinary sin; with abandonment and gluttony. The diet-busting demon of every weight watcher and gluten intolerant.
The devilish date night above is captured in a frame on the wall of Orlando’s Pizza Bruno. Its subscript – this is my kind of circus – couldn’t ring truer. The Hourglass District charmer is indeed my type of circus; a bite sized bit of punk rock Napoli. It’s easy to love, with a kicked back vibe and comforting grub that’s salve for the soul. Speaking of souls…
Pizza is like religion. We tend to worship the flavor thrust upon us as a child. Born in New York? Eucharist is a soda and slice on a greasy paper plate. Chicagoans mystifying embrace of deep dish is, well, deeply mystifying. The Roman’s love it al taglio (by the cut), Detroiters eat it upside down, and Missourians bow in deference to the Protestant Church of pizza; St. Louis’ yeast-free cracker crust with processed cheese. Based on where you’re from and how you’re raised there’s likely some form of pizza-shaped imprint on your brain.
I was fortunate enough to grow up confused (Irish Roman Catholic dad and Church of God mom) in a city in the throes of head-spinning growth and culinary change. This fostered an open-eyed, rainbow-faithed approach to life – and life? It’s really just six-degrees of pizza. It’s never far from mouth and I enjoy it in all of its yeasty denominations. Sure, there’s a touch of love/hate on the fringes; more ‘biscuity’ abominations are certainly the eternal bill of fare at Papa Mephistopheles’. On the flip side, there’s a thousand-degree hot spot in our hearts for the unpredictable joys of coal-fired. But, generally? I worship at the altar of whatever style is being slung. This laissez-faire approach often extends to quality. Pizza has the honor of occupying a distinct culinary category at Orlando Eats – one shared by few others. From Verace Pizza Napoletana to Totinos, it’s all good. Even bad pizza is good pizza.
Fortunately, Pizza Bruno is good-good pizza. Very good-good pizza.
Personal preference aside, and just like there is one religion that is more revered than all others (The Church of the SubGenius, you filthy sinner), there is one style of pizza that remains holier than holy – Neapolitan. You know – as in Naples. Italy. Those wildly gesticulating progenitors of western civilization that tightly regulate pizza ingredients, equipment and technique. Consecrated pizza. UNESCO heritage status pizza. Made distinct via wood burning ovens, distinct flour, and quick blast of high heat, the best examples feature a gorgeously puffy exterior crust – a cornicione – with a gentle crunch and center slightly sagging with sauce and salty cheese.
Pizza Bruno brands itself ‘Neapolitan style.’ We’d call it neo-Neapolitan. San Marzano toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe. Actually, California pizza? Just traditional Neapolitan that breaks some topping rules – so, neo-Neapolitan. Semantics are fun. Pizza Bruno might hate us for saying this, but its combo of traditional technique and unorthodox toppings is more akin to the Bay than the Boot. Just with less fuss, fig and chèvre.
The Curry Ford Road eatery is the brainchild of Bruno Zacchini. No stranger to the Central Florida food scene, Zacchini’s done duty at Cask & Larder, now defunct Oblivion Taproom, and New Smyrna Beach anomaly (it’s good), Third Wave Café. Pizza Bruno is his baby and he takes his baby seriously.
We’ll get to Bruno’s pizza, but it’d be heresy to overlook the restaurant’s starters. Let’s talk octopus. At Orlando Eats, we’re crazy odd about our octopod. As with most seafood, sourcing and execution are 99.9% of the pulpo game. Very few in Orlando play the game well. Pizza Bruno is a sure-fire exception. It’s wine-braised, wood roasted octopus is textural perfection – a significant hunk of fork-tender meat surrounded by a crispy outer char. This is the best example of properly cooked octopus we’ve had in Orlando, served simply with a salad of olive oil, celery and tomato. To guard against its gloriousness being an aberration, we ordered it again on our third visit and – yep – still pulpolicious.
Agrodolce is an Italian sweet and sour sauce defined more by than its flavor profile than by its ingredients. Variations abound. At Pizza Bruno roasted cauliflower is served with a chili and golden raisin agrodolce and pecorino. Overall, the plate was a tad sweet for our taste, but in isolation the sauce itself is excellent. With its vinegary sugary tang we’d undoubtedly love it paired with a something like porchetta or at least with a darker roast on the cauliflower.
Garlic knots are hyped and hedonistically garlicky – popular enough to be 86’ed from time to time – but I tend to avoid even quality bread before quality pizza. You’ll like them. Have kiddos in tow? Fill ‘em up on garlicky knots. More pizza for you and a week’s worth of vampire-proofing.
Happy Hour runs from 5-7PM Monday through Thursday, is a good deal and a great excuse to test the Bruno waters. The menu includes nibbles like an antipasto plate and artichokes, plus an $8 pizza margherita (normally $14). The antipasto is a straight-ahead nosh of Grana Padano, roasted peppers, olives, some soppressata and bread. A solid bit of simple to soak up booze. Artichokes are delicious but could be taken over the top with an additional quick lick of flame and color from the wood oven.
So, pizza and a full disclosure: Orlando Eats’ haunted mansion features a wood burning pizza oven at the heart of its hedge maze. Pretentious? Yes. True? Very much so. Well not the part about the hedge maze. Attempts to find the heart have thus far proven unsuccessful, so the oven was placed in the conservatory on the fringes of the mapped territories. Anywho, we invited a European ex-pat pizzaiolo living in Cape Coral to teach us a thing or two about the oven and have since learned quite a bit by tending to its idiosyncrasies, peel in hand. Enough to sound smart to those who haven’t and ignorant to those who have. Lessons learned? Wood matters. Kiln dried oak. Flour matters. Doppio zero. Technique matters. 900 degrees, 90 seconds, rotate for uniformity, a kiss from the dome before removing from the fire.
I indulge in this detour to hit home that when we first walked into Pizza Bruno we did so with a keen, collective eye on crust. We know that Pizza Bruno takes some pride in it. We’ve now enjoyed its pizza across several visits and with one small caveat outstanding, it’s outstanding.
A quick glance into Bruno’s kitchen revealed what we believe is a Pavesi Monoblock, which is a super solid forno made by hand in Modena. And although tools matter, we also know that pizza perfection is largely a result of craft and consistency – this means ensuring pizzaiolos working the oven are on the same page and kitchen turnover is kept to a minimum. So, the caveat. It may be the Orlando Eats’ hive-mind playing tricks on us, but we noticed a textural difference between daytime and nighttime pies. Lest you think it’s the dinner-booze talking, we’ve been drunk during lunch as well. During the day, we’ve found the crust slightly denser than what we’re accustomed to in the better versions of pizza napoletana. As an example, our barometer pizza – a Margherita with basil, fresh ‘muzz’, pecorino and extra virgin olive oil was good during the day, airier and excellent at night. A minor and slightly dubious grievance that requires more belly-filling research.
Apart from Bruno’s superb, brightly sauced Margherita, we’ve tried three other pies; the Crimson Ghost ($15), a Classic Original ($13) and a New Haven Clam Pie ($19).
The Crimson Ghost comes topped with calabrian chilies, soppressata, fresh mozzarella, basil, and hot honey. Despite our aversion to sweet, the fat from the salami and chili kick create a wonderfully balanced bite. As an aside, hot honey comes courtesy of Brooklyn-based Mike’s Hot Honey.
A Classic Original with oregano, garlic, fresh mozzarella, caciocavallo and parmesan was taken over the top with the addition of anchovies. Cheesy, salty salvation.
The New Haven Clam Pie features clams, parmesan, mozzarella and caciocavallo, oregano and thyme, heavy cream, Neuske’s bacon, lemon and parsley. We’re always hesitant when ordering white pies despite the fact that we always enjoy them. The Clam Pie at Bruno is fantastic– perhaps the best white pie we’ve had in town. We find that clams don’t always play well with mozzarella, but in combo with the other ingredients this works wonderfully. A single bite had drunken Yalies dancing in my head.
As with pizza, Pizza Bruno excels at bevvies. Rotating craft drafts on recent visits have included Persimmon Hollow, Sideward, and Ten10. There’s the fixed obligatories (PBR and Peroni) and a running range of bottled and canned locals. Cocktails are strong and well made. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed a Negroni or two (or three, or…). House wines (orvieto & sangiovese) have made for quality quaffing and there’s a focused but interesting and moderately priced range of bottled vino, much of which is either natural and/or biodynamic. For instance, the higher end finds a 2017 Vini Rabasco Cancelli Rosso – a zero-sulfite-added, astronomically guided beauty of a montepulciano from the bio-dynamo of a winemaker, Iole Rabasco ($56).
So, the final finals. Service? Friendly and pro. Ambience? A hyper casual mix of everyday and not-so-everyday humanity. Advice on approach? Hedge your bets. Skip lunch and hit happy hour first. You’ll guarantee yourself a seat and can enjoy a cut rate margherita while you ponder wider menu possibilities. Anything we didn’t like? Not really. Despite this, we’re certain that there’ll be those that’ll complain. It is pizza. Too thick, too thin, not enough, too much, this is right, that is wrong. It’s religion – brain’s turn off when belief turns on. As for what we believe? We believe we’ll be darkening Pizza Bruno’s doorstep on the regular. Just thinking about it makes us hungry as sin.