My friends know me as the un-chained guy, an obligate foodie with a strong preferential option for locally owned and operated eateries, where you’ll find a distinct local flavor, and where you’ll find the host on the premises, working without strings being pulled by accountants and lawyers in a distant corporate office.
My reasoning should be obvious: While chains may provide consistency and a predictable experience, the heavy hand of the bean counter and the cold reality of the quarterly balance sheet almost invariably inspire corner-cutting, and this is as true in the restaurant industry as it is in, well, the newspaper business.
Still, it wouldn’t make sense to avoid chain dining entirely — heaven knows, it’s popular — and I might miss some good eats. Here and there around the Metro, and particularly in the chain-rich environment of the East End, there’s decent dining to be found in at least a few of the big-name brands.
One of the best bets, in my experience, is Buca di Beppo, a Minneapolis-based chain that has become a popular fixture on the Hurstbourne Speedway, er, Parkway since it arrived here in 2001. At that time, the company had 33 properties; now it’s up past 90. But not much else has changed, from Buca’s zany, tongue-in-cheek New Jersey-style Italian-restaurant décor to its notoriously huge portions of Italian-American dishes, most of them sporting the familiar long-simmered, dark-red tomato sauce that the cognoscenti call “gravy.”
Despite occasional reports of variable service, I’ve always enjoyed friendly, attentive but not intrusive service here; if the “roots” Italian-immigrant fare doesn’t approach such local favorites as Melillo’s for authenticity, it comes reasonably close. And the portions are huge.
The aforementioned décor is so laughably, intentionally over-the-top that it’s more fun than tacky: Ceilings are lined with wine bottles and droop with hundreds of cheap plastic grapevines and grape bunches. Portions, of course, are huge. The faux stucco walls are decked out with literally thousands of photos and posters, many featuring famous Italians and Italian-Americans from Sophia Loren to Sinatra. The famous “Pope Room” has been properly updated, the alabaster bust of a smiling John Paul II at the center of its big, round table having been replaced by a more glowering image of Benedict XVI. And did I mention the huge portions?
Indeed, Buca di Beppo’s portions are so huge that “small” dishes are recommended for two or more, with the admonition that dinners are served family-style, “meant for sharing.” Asked about “large,” intended for four or more, our server shook his head. “You don’t want that,” he said.
As a matter of fact, perhaps fearing that lighter eaters were bypassing Buca in favor of tofu, seeds, nuts and sprouts, the company recently launched a new “Buca Mio” (“My Buca”) menu that features smaller portions meant to feed a single diner, amply but perhaps without need for the large grocery bags that Buca supplies for take-home leftovers.
The regular menu — an oversize sheet that also serves as your table mat — features about 60 selections, including antipasti (appetizers), salads and side dishes as well as about three dozen main courses subdivided into baked pasta specialties, pasta dishes, entrees and pizza. “Large” portions range in price from $15.99 (for spaghetti marinara) to $31.99 (for oven-roasted salmon with pesto cream sauce, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts). Pricing for “small” portions is $9.99 to $16.99.
The “Buca Mio” list of dishes for one is much shorter, and don’t get the idea that you’ll dine for half the price of a “small” dinner for two. Just 14 dishes are available in this format — seven pastas and seven entrees — and they’re priced from $8.99 (for spaghetti with meat sauce) to $15.99 (for shrimp and scallops orzo).
Let’s do some math: You come in to Buca with a hankering for some veal Parmigiana. Order from the Buca Mio menu and you’ll pay $14.99 for a hearty serving for one. Choose the “small” portion for two, and it’s $18.99, or $9.50 each. Summon a “large” portion for four and you’ll be charged $26.99, or $6.75 per hungry head.
For a fraction the per capita price and a much wider variety of dishes, my advice is simple: Go for the family-size meals and plan to take leftovers home. You’ll get more for your money and an extra dinner in the bargain.
For the sake of science, though, we stayed with the Buca Mio menu and were rewarded, if not with leftovers, at least with a filling and pretty decent roots-Italian dinner.
We started with fried calamari ($9.99) and were rewarded with a good-size portion of crisp-fried bites, about one-third tentacles, the rest unthreatening rings. A cup of thick, chunky warm marinara sauce with a good shake of hot red-pepper flakes made for zippy dipping.
We ordered a side dish of Tuscan beans and escarole with marinara ($5.99) with the idea of sharing it as an appetizer, but it came out at the same time as one of the entrees; the other, oddly, lagged, a minor lapse in timing. On the whole, I’d rather have received the hot food while it was hot than have them hold it while the belated portion came up.
The side dish was fine, too, tender white cannellini beans and dark, long-cooked leaves of gently bitter escarole in a thin, lightly garlicky tomato sauce. It was also a pleasure to have a dish called “Tuscan” that really was Tuscan: The denizens of the ancient, Chianti-producing region around Florence and Siena are nicknamed “Mangiafagioli” (“Bean Eaters”) thanks to their affection for the musical fruit.
Chicken saltimbocca ($12.99) was surprisingly well-crafted, a flat if not-quite scaloppine-thin slice of boneless chicken breast meat layered with a thin slice of prosciutto and sauteed golden, topped with an unexpected ration of artichoke hearts and tangy-sweet lemon butter beautifully scented with fresh sage. Two thumbs up for this dish and a well-executed small mound of fettuccine Alfredo with a creamy but attractively light creamy cheese sauce.
Lasagna ($11.99) was a decent rendition of this Italian comfort food favorite; not quite as thick as a brick but just about as hefty, a cube of wide pasta baked far beyond al dente was layered with creamy ricotta and tangy Parmigiano, swimming in a spicy pool of textured marinara sauce.
A bottle of Straccali 2005 Chianti Classico made a good match with the meal, dry and medium-bodied, full of dried-cherry flavor, if a bit overpriced at $26.99 (it’s an under-$10 wine at retail).
Homemade cheesecake ($8.99) was also very fine, a tall, hefty wedge in the tart, not-so-sweet New York-style, with thick raspberry sauce and a little dish of toasted hazelnuts served on the side as requested. Espresso ($3) was perfect, smooth and chocolatey with a foamy golden crema on top; frankly, I’d be delighted if some of the city’s top-tier eateries could do their espresso as well.
The Buca Mio menu didn’t hold down the tab much, not after we split an appetizer and a dessert, quaffed a decent albeit modest bottle of Chianti and finished things off with a couple of espressos: Dinner for two came to $87.92, with an $18.08 tip for excellent service pushing the total into three-figure territory.
In fairness, though, it’s easy to tailor your budget at Buca: A couple could enjoy a shared appetizer, a shared “small” entree for two and soft drinks or a couple of glasses of wine and get out for $35 or $40 plus tip.
Buca di Beppo
2051 S. Hurstbourne Pkwy.
Robin Garr’s rating: 84 points
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