When I lived in New York in the early 1970s, I was informally adopted by an older Italian couple. They had no children, so I was treated to tours of restaurants in Little Italy and enthusiastically encouraged to eat more from the family-sized servings. Since then, I haven't seen, or experienced anything like those old-style supper clubs. Until I entered Buca di Beppo.
Loosely translated, the name means "Joe's Basement" and relates to the basement restaurant of the founder's grandfather. Headquartered in Minneapolis, there are over 50 Bucas nationwide.
We'd been warned of long waits on the sidewalk, so I made a reservation for a mid-week dinner. I was given a five-digit code, which was not requested, although they wouldn't seat us until all four of our party assembled.
Situated in bustling Rookwood Commons, Buca pushes the tacky eclectic theme from the outside in. Plastic flowers, photos that range from glitz to adolescent humor lined the walls.
Everything Italian is on the music track (of course, Sinatra is featured) that plays throughout the restaurant and seems louder in the lobby.
We were guided through the kitchen past a cozy and cheerful table for six, opposite a food prep counter. Rounding the corner, we were assailed with the raucous activity and color of two rooms flanking the hallway that leads to the infamous Pope Table. The alcove seats 16 and is plastered with images of John Paul II, including his bust situated in the center of the Lazy Susan. I'm not sure if my Italian "parents" would approve of the treatment of the Pope, but it seemed to amuse most who passed the revelers at the table.
Just getting to the table confirmed that we planned well to come with three adults and a growing 10-year old. All food is served family-style: large platters of food parceled out to the diners on individual plates. Most selections we ate or saw would feed at least four with leftovers.
Each room featured a central menu board, although there were a couple of specials not depicted on the board. Within moments of ordering, the Small Caesar Salad ($10.95) arrived, a crisp, mountainous tumble of Romaine dusted with finely grated Romano and a light dressing with anchovies on the side, as we requested. An enormous foccacia-like round of chewy peasant bread was split in half, slathered with butter and spiked with slices of garlic for the enticing Garlic Bread ($5.95).
Then the Calamari ($12.95) appeared, crisp-coated rings spilling off the platter and onto the paper-covered, red-checked tablecloth. The light breading was mildly spiced over the delectable and chewy seafood and was complemented with a delightful kick of red pepper added to the marinara sauce. The antipasti qualified our table for the "clean plate club" and became our first reason to return to Buca di Beppo.
One of the specials of the evening was Lasagna ($23.95), an astounding loaf of nine levels of light pasta, layered with airy ricotta, and topped with a rich, sweet and lively meat marinara. My partner is somewhat of a lasagna aficionado and, although we'd already had a considerable amount to eat, he was happy to keep the lasagna platter parked in front of his plate.
Fork-tender veal scaloppini was nestled atop savory white beans with escarole and tomato with a light citrus tang in the Veal Limone ($19.95). The sharp, earthy flavor of the escarole was a great contrast to the white beans, and to my taste, was almost better than the veal. The veal, sautéed in a lemon butter sauce and glazed with thin slices of provolone, partnered with the flavorful beans, made for a light feel to a huge serving. With a touch of the saltshaker, this dish equalled the highest note of Sinatra.
With the over-the-top décor, it was nice to be catered to by a friendly, but not overbearing staff. We participated in a couple of birthday choruses led by the enthusiastic staff.
Like many chain restaurants, both the noise and the décor were a little too much. It's hard to miss the point of the kitschy décor, and that makes for more to take in on return visits. The noise was high-pitched on a Tuesday night: I'd hate to imagine the weekend decibel level.
With careful pacing, we selected the Bread Pudding ($8.95) from the tempting options. Slathered with caramel sauce, the sourdough bread was layered with cinnamon, raisins, milk and chocolate chips for a satisfying meal by itself.
I think my Italian "parents" would have been pleased with the food, quantity and value of the meals at Buca di Beppo.
And I can only imagine how they would have contributed to the overall rowdy atmosphere. ©