Portland’s reputation as a top food destination is no secret. That’s become especially true in the last decade, as the growth of the Old Port and a slew of new concepts and cuisines led Maine’s largest city to be declared “restaurant city of the year” by food magazine Bon Appétit in 2018.
But a few local establishments from the old world have witnessed the industry’s arc and lived to tell the tale. One of those is Bruno’s Restaurant & Tavern.
“We’ve been doing this for 42 years. There’s a reason [customers] keep coming back,” longtime owner Bobby Napolitano told the Phoenix from the Allen Avenue restaurant on one of the nicer afternoons of a mostly rainy Maine summer.
Bruno’s has been on Allen Avenue in North Deering since 1999, but the restaurant dates back to 1981, when Napolitano, then 24 years old, opened a first rendition of Bruno’s on India Street.
Back then, Portland’s Old Port was a much different scene. It was “mostly working waterfront and empty warehouses,” recalled Napolitano, now 65. At first, Bruno’s just sold steamed hot dogs and beer, but once he started to grow the menu with favorites like pizza and steak and cheeses, the restaurant began to build a following. Soon, people in the neighborhood from Portland’s old Italian community regularly stopped by — including Napolitano’s father and family of 12, who pitched in and shared their recipes, adding to the restaurant’s growth.
Business was booming, and the $35,000 Bruno’s did in the first year grew exponentially, to $500,000 in its fifth, he recalled.
Decades later, Bruno’s is still a family affair, and the restaurant still makes a lot of their menu items from scratch based on those family recipes: the pasta, meatballs, sauce, as well as hand-breaded eggplant parmesan.
“The restaurant scene has changed quite a bit in Portland, but we’ve been able to hold our place here,” general manager Danny Napolitano said. “People are looking for real elevated stuff downtown, but I think we still fill our niche.”
Danny Napolitano, 38, and one of Bobby’s two sons, joined the fold back in 2010, making the business multi-generational. He said it took a little time to decide he wanted to do it as a career, but he jumped right in when Bruno’s was looking for a manager over a decade ago.
“I’ve always liked the business,” the younger Napolitano said. “He [Bobby] still asks me, ‘Are you sure you like this still?’”
The family ties are also present in the recipes. Roughly a dozen family members are on restaurant staff at Bruno’s. Elsewhere in Portland, Bobby Napolitano’s cousin runs Maria’s Ristorante on Congress Street, and his wife comes from the DiMillo’s family, which has run DiMillo’s on the Waterfront since the 1960s.
“I’ve learned a lot from my father-in-law and from my uncles too,” Bobby Napolitano said. “[Tony DiMillo] was very smart, and helped me a lot along the way.”
Where many businesses may turn to expanding or opening a new location after long stretches of success, staying put has been what’s worked for Bruno’s. The family has tossed around the idea of expansion in past years, Danny Napolitano said, but nothing lately. They had an opportunity to take over Thatcher’s Restaurant, a Gorham sports bar, years ago, and declined.
He’s seen other businesses be challenged with their expansions, and understandably so.
“If you want something done right, you have to be there,” Napolitano said. “To sacrifice quality for quantity, I just don’t see that happening for us.”
June and July have been solid business wise for Bruno’s, according to the younger Napolitano, despite the rainy weather. The catering and events portion of the business model has been working well too, he added, averaging about 20 or so events a month.
Rather than explore a second location, Bruno’s looked to retail to grow and modernize their business, launching Bruno’s Pasta Company in 2018 to market their homemade ravioli to stores throughout Maine. Whole Foods Market picked up the product in 2019.
In the meantime, passersby on Allen Avenue can expect the Napolitanos to be staying put in North Deering for years to come.
Maybe the execution is a little different, the father-and-son duo said. But no doubt, they’d put their food up against anyone’s.