On Buca di Beppo
I have friends who hate chain restaurants, and well, have friends that love chains too. But for those that despise the mass-produced feel of “the chain restaurant”: I wonder how they feel about Buca di Beppo.
Even though there’s a Buca di Beppo 5 minutes from my house, it had been years (I want to say almost a decade) since I’ve been there. They used to only serve enormous family-style portions, so you always needed a large group to even think about going there. But recently, they’ve come out with the “Mio” portion: made for the individual diner, not accompanied by a family of 10 to share with.
It took me years and many double-takes at the Buca di Beppo advertisement on Chow.com to realize that the cozy Italian establishment just down the street was a national chain. To me, you would never know.
The place feels like an Italian family’s home with black and white old photos plastered all over the walls. Colored Christmas lights are strung just about everywhere you look, from the entrance to the wall beside your very own table. And the tables themselves are very close together, creating an atmosphere that makes you feel like…well, family. You forget you’re simply having dinner plans with a friend, and that you don’t actually know everyone else there.
This feeling was really cemented when the waitress called everybody’s attention for the little boy’s birthday who was conveniently seated right in the middle of our room. I’ve been around for the common friendly birthday singing at restaurants before, but this one seemed more heartfelt than usual. I felt like I was in a movie, and I almost wanted to say to my friend “Oh yea, it’s Johnny’s Birthday?” and then I realized…oh wait, I have no idea who this kid is.
Like I said, you’d never know it was a chain. And while I know that atmosphere can be mass-produced just like food, they really pulled one over on me.
But anyway, on to the food.
One of the dishes I distinctly remembered savoring from Buca di Beppo was their Chicken Cacciatore. Maybe as a child that was the first time I ever had such a dish and discovered I liked it, or maybe they just made a mean Cacciatore – but either way, I was in love. You can only imagine my dismay when after reading the menu five or so times – I saw no sign of Chicken Cacciatore.
I asked the waitress what happened, and she said if they had all the ingredients, they could certainly whip it up for me. Again, I was impressed. Would an ordinary restaurant offer to make something not on the menu? This wasn’t a simple “bowl of noodles.” But instead of bothering them, I decided to try something else. Maybe there was a reason it was no longer on the menu.
I was feeling adventurous so I went with something I had never heard of: the penne arrabbiata – penne served with spicy sausage, crushed red pepper and a zesty marinara. My friend ordered the lasagna.
The waitress brought out a huge hunk of bread and some olive oil for us to indulge in before our meals came. And dipping huge hunks of bread in a mixture of olive oil and parmesan cheese just happens to be one of my favorite parts of any Italian meal.
Next, she served me my side caesar salad (also a new perk of the Mio portion – you can add a salad for $2.99 instead of having to split a GIANT salad for $9.99). I was definitely pleased with this salad. I’m ordinarily picky with Caesar salads and this one was up to par – they even served it with a lemon; a definite plus!
And finally, out came the food. Said friend’s lasagna:
And my Penne Arrabbiata:
I sampled both and they were delicious. Both of the sauces were flavorful and rich. The flavors did not seem mass produced. The only bout I had with the whole dish is that I thought the sausage would be more incorporated into the sauce, instead of laid on top. I ordinarily do not order sausage so I wasn’t one for eating it straight up – but of course, this isn’t the restaurant’s fault. Abd though “mio” size, the portions were still rather large.
And, if Bittman and Batali had dinner together here (as if there were a chance of that happening), I think they’d both be satisfied with the ratio of pasta to sauce. Both were highlighted in my dish, and it was the perfect compromise.