I found you just in time, Brunos. After a brutally long string of dreadful meals at (mostly) new restaurants, you came through with four consecutive, faith-restoring dinners. You saved my soul. In Brea of all places.
Open since September, Brunos Trattoria boasts advantages that are fairly rare in these parts: thoughtfully executed Italian cuisine, a cozy setting, appealing prices, and a scarcity of children in the 3-to-23 age range. Plus, Brunos earns bonus points for not serving pizza in an era that, five years from now, surely will be known as the Pizza Bubble.
Maybe it was the chilly weather on my first visit, but a sense of “love at first bite” rules the table once the arancini appears—and quickly disappears. Golden orbs of lightly breaded risotto, lava-hot inside and oozing tender, creamy arborio rice and bits of sweet, soft ham, are irresistible joy bombs as starters. It seems that every table of scarf-bundled diners is cautiously risking soft-palate burns with an order of these savory Sicilian nuggets. Salumi misti is another thriller—a plank laden with fresh slices of fat-dappled cured meats. The artisan selection of three varies, but is always complemented with grilled bread and house-cured olives.
Brick walls, leather seating, and amber lights lend cozy warmth to the long space that leads to an open kitchen in the back. A piccolo patio that abuts Birch Street stays pretty full, but the wall-hugging bar up front feels more welcoming, though hectic, especially at happy hour when discounts are steep on terrific appetizers and drinks.
The menu of classics is quite compact so it’s easy to find dishes that tempt. Papardelle Bruno is kitchen-table comfort fare with a chef’s flair: Wide ribbons of eggy pasta, made in-house, are a fulsome bed for wine-braised short ribs and wild mushrooms that collapse into perfect rich mouthfuls. This zuppa di pesce is Venetian-style—more refined than cioppino, its brassy San Francisco cousin. Clams, shrimp, mussels, squid, and cod retain their texture and distinct flavors in a broth of tomatoes and fresh herbs. Braciola di Maiale is a succulent center-cut pork chop, lightly brined, pan-seared, and all the more luscious thanks to a creamy, soft polenta with fontina cheese.
Pastas, both dried or made fresh in-house, are a fine lot of authentic preparations. Thin, tender sheets layered with tasty Bolognese and a proper béchamel set up a lovely stack of lasagna, slumping seductively under a single huge leaf of basil—no thick, gluey ruffles here. And the heady Carbonara Classica with dried spaghetti, pancetta, egg yolk, and potent cracked black pepper is blessedly free of those pesky interlopers, peas and mushrooms. Pureed, naturally sweet butternut squash fills the homemade ravioli di zucca bathed in fresh sage-butter pan sauce that almost reins in the squash’s honey notes; a light sprinkling of salty Parmesan brings more harmony to the dish. Even humble capellini alla checca has the appropriate ratios of angel hair, tomato, basil, garlic, and milky cubes of fresh mozzarella, an ideal pasta course to have or split before a heavier entree. Success is less certain with the fresh gnocchi, which some nights is decent, other nights gummy.
Seafood is a forte here, despite North County’s carnivorous bent. Fritto misto, a mix of battered shrimp, squid, crescents of raw fennel, and a few kale leaves, is great for sharing. Dig in while it’s fryer-hot and don’t skip squeezing the grilled lemon over the crispy heap. Cozze, a big white bowl of plump, sweet Prince Edward Island mussels, exudes a vapor of garlic, herbs, wine, and the sea. You’ll consider slurping broth from the bowl after plucking that last golden mussel from its blue-black shell. Branzino tastes best as they serve it here, with crispy skin that adds a layer of mineral character to the mild white fish. Roasted red potatoes and fresh spinach contribute heft to this light protein; lemon and capers lace it all together, in classic style.
Old school and seafood are second nature to executive chef Peter Serantoni, who grew up in Venice, Italy. The “San Marco 865” in the restaurant logo is a nod to his family’s home address and the cooking of Papa Bruno, and Nonna Maria. Formal culinary training in Europe and decades at high-profile American restaurants are the foundation of his kitchen, allowing translation of his standards to a team that includes ace chef de cuisine Christian de la Vara. The result is one of the area’s best new restaurants. He teams with partner and hospitality veteran Don Myers, who also is his collaborator at nearby sibling Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen.
Like Cha Cha’s, Brunos offers an impressive bar and beverage carte. Thirty-eight of the wines are $7 per glass or $28 per bottle. Even corkage is free for the first bottle. How Italian. Signature cocktails have a heavy Italian accent and offer first-rate mixology using prosecco, Aperol, Carpano Antica, and other imported elixirs.
Another bonus is pastry chef Stevie Sandoval. A catering veteran and recent grad of the Art Institute’s baking and pastry program, she’s why your tiramisu is ultraboozy yet superfluffy. And why the velvety caramel budino is a sweet-buttered toasty delight that leaves you smiling. I can’t wait for summer’s fresh peaches to improve the already enticing almond torta di pesche with vanilla bean gelato.
With its laudable, authentic fare, a great beverage program, fair prices, and caring, professional hospitality, Brunos is the complete package. After scouting too many mediocre newbies, this place feels like a gift.
Arancini, fritto misto, branzino, salumi misti, Pappardelle Bruno, Carbonara Classica, ravioli di zucca, capellini alla checca, lasagna al forno, braciola, tiramisu, caramel budino, signature cocktails.
Appetizers, $6 to $13; pastas and entrees, $13 to $23; desserts, $6; specialty cocktails, $7 to $9.
210 W. Birch St., Brea, 714-257-1000 brunosbrea.com
Photographs by Priscilla Iessi
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue.