The other night my husband and I were trying to figure out what to have for dinner.
“You know what sounds really good?” he asked.
“I KNOW!” I exclaimed. Unfortunately for us, Bruno’s is located in West Lafayette, Indiana, approximately three hours from our suburban Chicago home.
Now, you might read that and think “they live near Chicago. Chicago’s kinda known for its pies. Why would they be craving pizza from Indiana?”
Well, lemme tell you.
Bruno’s is in a college town, so it’s only natural there’d be a pizza place, right? Except that wasn’t always the case. When Bruno Itin and his wife, Evelyn, moved to West Lafayette in 1955, there wasn’t a pizza to be found.
Imagine that – a college town without pizza. There is something distinctly wrong with that idea, so the couple made it right. They opened Bruno’s Pizza ten days after their wedding (how’s that for a honeymoon?).
Over the years they added Swiss, Italian, and German specialties to the menu. This might seem odd, until learning that Bruno emigrated from Switzerland to Indiana in 1951. He’d owned a bakery back home, and though he began his life in America working construction, it didn’t take long for him to get back into the business of feeding people. He began working at Flamingo Lounge in Gary and was so good he was recruited by Volcano Restaurant in South Bend, where he met his future wife. That’s also how they ended up in West Lafayette. Purdue students visiting during Notre Dame games convinced him to move to their town, because they didn’t have anyplace to get pizza.
It’s been 60+ years since the Itins brought pizza to Purdue (or 5,738 in restaurant years). There have been a few changes during that time. In 1970, after extensive remodeling and the addition of artifacts from Switzerland, the name changed to Bruno’s Swiss Inn. Nearly 20 years later, construction on US 231 forced the move to the present location. That Swiss heritage is still honored, and one of the private rooms is filled with artifacts, including the original booths. With that move, they also expanded and one giant room became dedicated to memorabilia from the many, many Purdue sports figures who have dined there. Since 1998, this Lafayette Legend has been known as Bruno’s Pizza and Big O’s Sports Room.
We sat at a table in a room filled to overflowing with sports stuff. Inside glass cases, rings and balls and shirts and figurines and signed photographs piled one over the other. You could spend a week trying to see it all. Even the tables are part of the Purdue passion. Ours was signed by the legendary basketball coach Gene Keady.
We tried to soak it all in as we dug into a plate of Bruno Dough. These balls of happiness are deep-fried pizza dough drizzled with garlic butter, topped with parmesan, and served with marinara and cheese sauce. I didn’t lick the plate. Promise.
After that, we thought something healthy was in order, so we tried their house salads. The menu description is simple: mixed greens with an assortment of toppings.
This is Bruno’s idea of an “assortment of toppings”:
Cucumber. Red onions. Roasted beets (yay!). Egg. Radish. Julienned carrots. Tomato. Sunflower seeds. Golden raisins. Cheddar. It’s a salad bar on a plate. It’s amazing.
And then, the pièce de résistance, The Pizza:
Do you hear the choir singing?
This. This is what we are craving. That ooey-gooey cheese, that veritable butcher’s counter of meat practically bursting out from under, that simple sauce with a light seasoning of garlic, that dough…
Why is it so good? Orlando told us it’s because he uses brick cheese in addition to the standard mozzarella.
There’s more to it than that, of course. There’s the locally-sourced meat. There’s the simple sauce that complements instead of competes.
Most importantly, there’s the love of a family business. Bruno passed in 2006, and Evelyn in 2008, but Orlando and his siblings, Bruno, Jr. and Tina, and a slew of granddaughters are still going strong. Orlando’s been working in the family restaurant his entire life, and he’s the “Big O” in Big O’s Sports Room. Before we entered we saw him up front making the dough, his shirt lightly dusted with flour. He pointed out the photos of celebrities and sports figures that blanket the walls, particularly proud of the collage with Neil Armstrong. We could tell we were in his home, and we were welcome.
While there are now several places to get a slice in West Lafayette, there’s only one Bruno’s. It’s a place filled with passion, pride, a whole lot of heart, and ooey, gooey, crave-worthy pizza.
Orlando covered our tab, but all opinions (and cravings) are my own.