As any Portland area driver will tell you, the intersection of Forest, Allen, and Stevens avenues is its own special version of hell. It has the power to transform even the most mild-mannered vehicle operator into a rage-filled fountain of expletives.
I’ve seen it happen (to a friend, of course), but the requisite tenacity, strength of spirit and hunger for Italian food will be rewarded with Bruno’s Restaurant and Tavern, a true diamond in the outer Forest rough.
Bruno’s has been a Portland staple since 1981, when founder Bob Napolitano set up shop in the back corner of Micucci’s Grocery on India Street selling hot dogs and bottled beer. A couple moves, expansions and name changes later resulted in present-day Bruno’s, which has been serving up classic, unpretentious Italian fare – and drinks to go with it – at its Allen Avenue location since 1999.
Upon entering the unassuming building just set back from the road, visitors are given a choice: the door to the left (dining) or the right (the tavern). I think you know where this choose-your-own-adventure is going.
The tavern was, to use the words of my companion that night, “bumpin’,” especially for a Tuesday. The drink selection is extensive and includes a handful of classic cocktails, 15 beers on tap (Allagash, Baxter, Sebago and Shipyard for local options) and a very substantial wine list.
We were too late to take advantage of happy hour (75 cents off all well drinks, beer and wine Monday through Friday, from 4 to 7 p.m.), but the drinks were reasonably priced and boozy enough to get the job done. My Margarita Primo (with salt) was a solid take on the classic drink, but my friend’s Lemondrop Martini (with sugar) really stole the show, which is no easy task when tequila is the competition.
In the interest of my companion’s vegetarian leanings, we got the eggplant fries and crab-stuffed mushrooms, which were both delicious, though I do tend to say that about anything that comes with marinara sauce. The rest of the menu was filled with exactly what you would expect: pizza, mussels, chicken parm and every Italian pasta dish you can imagine.
Behind the bar was Bruno Napolitano himself, nephew of the founder, though not the establishment’s namesake, serving up drinks and making sure regulars and newcomers alike were all being taken care of, which helped to bolster the family-owned feel of the place. The staff was friendly and attentive, making all of us right at home.
The bar at Bruno’s is the perfect extension to a great family-friendly restaurant in an otherwise uninspiring area of Portland. If you’re going to fight your way down Forest Avenue, it helps to have a worthwhile destination at the end of the gantlet. Even better if that place has marinara and martinis.
WHERE: 33 Allen Ave., Portland
PHONE: (207) 878-9511
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to noon Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
AMENITIES: Big bar area, tasteful TV setup, separate tavern and dining areas, fantastic menu, friendly staff, take-out options, daily food and drink specials, candy machine.
BOTTOM LINE: With it’s unpretentious take on classic Italian food and warm welcoming atmosphere, Bruno’s Restaurant and Tavern makes you feel like family, whether it’s your first visit or your 50th.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes