Remembering Pat Bruno: ‘He knew food’

Despite his well-known fondness for Italian food, if Pat Bruno could have chosen the location of his last meal in Chicago, it would have been at Les Nomades, the elegant French restaurant on West Ontario Street.

“I love the atmosphere, I love the food. I love the whole [place],” he told Phil Ponce in a Chicago Tonight interview last February. “It’s fine dining the way fine dining used to be. That’s what I would do.”

Pasquale “Pat” Bruno Jr., who reviewed restaurants and wrote enticingly about food for the Sun-Times for 27 years, died Tuesday after a three-year battle with a rare form of brain cancer. He was 79.

The author of five cookbooks and former operator of a Chicago cooking school, Bruno made his work for the Sun-Times the main focus of his career. “I knew I had a good thing, and I put my heart and soul in it,” he once told me. Though countless readers knew and trusted his byline, few would have recognized his face, which they rarely saw as he strived to protect the anonymity of his reviews.

Shortly after he was dropped by the Sun-Times in 2011 (a disappointment he described as “kind of a punch in the stomach”), Bruno wrote an essay for the Washington Post in which he recounted his ordeal with glioblastoma multiforme. His cancer treatment never affected his palate or his eagerness to do the job he loved. “Present cancer excepted, I have had a whole lot of good luck,” he wrote. “I have managed to throw together a veritable minestrone of good times.”

Colleagues remembered him Wednesday as knowledgeable and passionate about food and always eager to share news of his latest culinary adventures.

Miriam DiNunzio, the Sun-Times Weekend section editor who worked with Bruno for 20 years, said he “truly loved Chicago's dining scene, loved to discover a new restaurant or chef that showed promise,” adding: “He also had his favorite places around town and he was fiercely loyal to them. I had no idea he was so ill, as he told no one at the paper about his brain cancer until the day he was let go. He finally told me that he had undergone chemo and radiation, but he never missed a deadline, never complained and never asked for a week off through all of it.”

Michael Nagrant, the founder/editor of Hungry Magazine who succeeded Bruno at the Sun-Times, acknowledged that he’d often been critical of him in the past: “Frankly, part of the reason I engaged him so often, was because, unlike most food writers, he mattered.”

“He wasn't an elitist, but he knew food," Nagrant said. "He had reach, an appeal for the blue-haired ladies in the suburbs as well as urban globetrotting bon vivants. He was one of the titans.  I look back at some of his reviews in the ’80s — an era when most regarded food writing as the journalistic second tier — and he was digging up unexpected places no one knew about like Mexican Inn (incidentally still an unknown and one of the coolest little Tex Mex joints in town) on the far South Side of Chicago. 

“Along with [the Chicago Tribune’s] Phil Vettel, and because of the changing landscape of journalism, Bruno is also probably the last of the titans. If I work hard enough for my readers, the best reward would be to have the kind of influence and longevity Bruno did.”

Steve Dolinsky, the veteran food reporter for ABC 7, credited Bruno with helping to broaden the public’s taste.

“People have to remember that Pat raised awareness for Chicago's burgeoning food scene long before food was cool,” Dolinsky said. “Way before bloggers and websites and social media, he was one of the few professional voices out there, telling people about regional Mexican, ethnic Chinese, and yes, his beloved pizza.

“I never had a chance to break bread with the man, but what I wouldn't have given to go on a pizza binge around town with him.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)