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Pat Bruno, former Sun-Times restaurant critic, has died

Former Sun-Times restaurant critic PBruno.

Former Sun-Times restaurant critic Pat Bruno.

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Updated: December 2, 2012 2:06PM

Longtime Sun-Times restaurant critic Pat Bruno, a key and colorful voice on Chicago’s dining scene for more than a quarter century, died Tuesday night after a lengthy battle with brain cancer. Mr. Bruno was 79.

Glioblastoma multiforme ultimately took Mr. Bruno’s life, but the cancer couldn’t take away his undying passion for the things he loved most: family, travel, adventure, writing and food. Especially Italian food.

“One of the last emails he sent me he talked about going to get another round of chemo and how he was excited because there was a good Italian restaurant near the hospital,” said Mr. Bruno’s niece, Debra Bruno, who lives in Beijing, China.

“His pasta cookbook is the one I still use to make my ravioli to this day,” Debra added. “He really understood food. He was one of the first true locavores.”

Mr. Bruno authored five cookbooks, including one devoted to his beloved pizza. Wearing his trusty fedora to disguise his identity, he reviewed countless restaurants in Chicago for a weekly column that ran in the Sun-Times for 27 years. His final review for the paper was published in September 2011.

“He knew food inside and out,” said John Hogan, executive chef at Keefer’s and Tavern at the Park. “He was very tough as a critic. Sometimes too tough, I thought.”

When Hogan opened Keefer’s, Mr. Bruno wrote a positive review — for the most part.

“One thing he did say … is my chicken soup tasted like dishwater,” Hogan said with a laugh. “We improved the soup.”

Mr. Bruno’s love affair with food began during his military service when he was based at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany.

“He spent four years there and traveled all over Europe, where he fell in love with all kinds of cuisines,” said Gale Bruno, Mr. Bruno’s wife of 33 years.

The two met while both were working for Sears at the old Homan Avenue headquarters; she worked in the advertising department, he was the national merchandise manager for the company’s home appliance division. They began dating soon after Mr. Bruno left the company to open a small kitchen/cookware store in far north suburban Woodstock.

“Pat was way up there in the company,” Gale Bruno said. “When they moved to the Sears Tower, he was one of the guys with the hard hats and shovels when they [ceremoniously] drove in the pylons.”

One of four sons born to parents with Italian roots, Mr. Bruno grew up in Athens, New York. He spent four years in the Air Force, which took him to different parts of the world and allowed him to expand his palate.

He graduated from college in Vermont, working as a waiter, cook, bouncer and bus driver. His job with Sears brought him to Chicago in 1967, along with his first wife and two daughters. Mr. Bruno became a partner in a chain of stores called Cook’s Mart, once an invaluable resource to chefs like Jean Joho of Everest.

“Now you can find everything online,” Joho said. “But if you needed a special cookie cutter, he had it. If you needed a different rolling pin, he had it. If you needed a nice coffee pot, he had it.”

And if it didn’t exist, Mr. Bruno sometimes tried to make it himself.

“He was a big innovator,” Joho recalled. “He was always working on something new.”

A couple of Mr. Bruno’s stores had cooking schools, which gave him the opportunity to work alongside culinary superstars such as Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.

In an essay he wrote for the Washington Post late last year, Mr. Bruno recounted some of the things he’s been fortunate enough to do over the years: hunting for truffles in the hills of Italy’s Piedmont region, sharing a glass of lemonade with a young guy named Elvis who wanted to be a singer, and teaching Oprah how to toss pizza dough when the Queen of Talk was starting out in Baltimore.

“He lived life to its fullest,” said his youngest daughter, Trish Bruno, of Winfield.

Trish remembers the look her father would get on his face after he’d tasted something divine. Mr. Bruno passed down his love of food — and that look — to Trish’s youngest daughter, Jessica Cleveland, 20, who’s training to be a pastry chef.

“She gets that same look my dad used to get,” she said. “She got that from him.”

Among Mr. Bruno’s favorite restaurants in Chicago were La Scarola on West Grand and Tru on North St. Clair, Gale Bruno said.

“He loved Chicago’s dining scene, and restaurants on all levels,” she said. “It was hard for us to go to his favorites as we were always heading to other places for his reviews.”

Mr. Bruno’s favorite food, his wife said, had to be “spaghetti and meatballs, with really good, gourmet meatballs.”

Trish believes her father’s gusto helped him hang on longer than doctors expected. Mr. Bruno initially was diagnosed with brain cancer after suffering a seizure in late 2009. He endured two surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy in an attempt to keep the malignancy at bay.

“He wasn’t going to let this beat him,” she said. “He made it almost three years. That’s huge. It doesn’t surprise me at all. My dad was such a fighter.”

Mr. Bruno’s condition began to deteriorate rapidly in May. He spent the last few months in a local nursing facility, where Trish was with him at his bedside shortly before he died Tuesday night.

“I was holding his hand and told him that I loved him and I was going to miss him terribly,” Trish said. “He was suffering so much. He was such a proud man. He didn’t want anyone to see him this way. I told him it was OK to let go. He fought the good fight. He always did.”

Mr. Bruno’s survivors include his wife, Gale; his two daughters, Trish Bruno and Carol Milton; and four grandchildren, Daniel and Maria Milton and Nicole and Jessica Cleveland.

Funeral arrangements are pending at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest.

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