Crusty but creative

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The Bob behind Robert’s Deli has perfected the art of pizza making

By Emile Hallez

Making the perfect pizza crust is a delicate art.

Flour, water, yeast, sugar and salt are the only necessary ingredients, and the perfect combination is crucial. Adding just enough yeast gives the crust a characteristic, mild flavor. Too much yeast will make the crust as bloated as a balloon. And the temperature of the water had better be just right.

It’s a balance South Jeffco’s Bob Bruso knows all too well — because he’s spent decades perfecting it.

“It’s easy to get, easy to eat,” Bruso said of pizza, of which crust is the most important component. “It’s quick, and it’s always good.”

When he and his wife, Jean, opened Robert’s Italian Deli on West Ken Caryl Avenue 10 years ago, he already knew a few things about pizza. He may not have attended a culinary institute, but he spent the latter part of his childhood in a New York pizzeria.

“I started around (age) 12,” he said. “My next-door neighbor was pretty much my mentor in life, and he made me work. … I wasn’t allowed to quit.”

Bob swept the parking lot of Patricia’s Pizzeria for a meager $5 a week. He also assembled cardboard boxes and stocked the refrigerator until he was promoted to kitchen duties. The restaurant owners not only gave him a practical education in food preparation, but they assumed parental roles in his life. Bruso’s parents split up when he was 8, and his father was out of the familial picture shortly after the break-up.

“He grew up without a father,” Jean said. “These two guys became his father figure. … They taught him how to make pizza, how to cook.”

It’s not surprising that Bob has worked in food service for his entire adult life. But Jean’s path to pizzeria ownership was a bit different.

The Brusos moved to Colorado about 20 years ago. Jean had a longtime job as an engineer for AT&T Wireless, but she was eventually laid off. Ready for change, the two decided to set up shop across the street from their home in September 1999. Robert’s Italian Deli was born.

“We decided that we wanted to open up our own business, because quite frankly we hate chain restaurants,” Jean said, explaining that they wanted to educate fans of pizza chains about authentic Italian food.

Bruso might have brought with him a mastery of creating foldable, thin-crust New York-style pies. But he also brought a touch of spicy New York disposition.

“I work too much,” he said. “I’m not happy with that.”

In celebration of 10 years in business, the restaurant expanded its dining area and has undergone a complete remodeling, making Bruso a busy man indeed.

“We knocked a wall down,” Jean said of the expansion. “We are getting all new tables and chairs. … We’re going to be expanding our menu, too.”

Robert’s is known for its community contributions — the Brusos donate to local causes, and students and teachers get special discounts on food. Bruso says he has even provided free catering at funeral services for regular customers who had deaths in the family.

If growing up to fulfill his dream of running a pizzeria has taught Bruso anything, it’s that everyone has to start somewhere. He often gives small jobs to local kids, usually his friends’ children. They, like a young Bruso before them, stock refrigerators.

“I try to teach them to be responsible,” he said. “I try to teach them that you have to work hard.”