Monday, February 9, 2009

Buca di Beppo

Buca di Beppo
2635 Edmondson Road

There are many pleasant surprises at this family-style Italian restaurant chain, the first of which is a tour of the kitchen on the way to the dining room. I suppose the tour is to highlight the reservation-only table in the kitchen for those into that sort of thing, and it’s a nice departure from the norm.

The décor can probably be summed up as TGIF-Italian: hundreds of framed photos and posters of famous (and infamous) Italians compete with LPs, tsotchkes, and a vast assortment of holiday rainbow-lights. You won’t find plastic, easy-clean tablecloths here; they are the real, red checkered deal, complete with obligatory garlic and tomato stains. The recessed ceiling in one of the dining rooms looks like a wine cellar – the empties backlit to eye-catching effect. If you make a reservation with a large enough party, you might find yourself seated at The Pope Table, where photos of the Supreme Pontiff decorate the space, highlighted by a bust of Il Papa encased in plexiglass. My husband reckoned that the table was “a little creepy, as if you were in an episode of Futurama and you had John Paul II’s head in a jar in the middle of your eating area.”

The wine cellar ceiling

There is plenty to keep the eye entertained

The whole restaurant screams kitschy and fun, even the restrooms. I won’t ruin it, but be sure to check out the photos and ephemera on the walls, as they are good for a laugh.

There are other nice touches as well: children are given chef hats to wear, which doesn’t sound like much but every kid we saw was chuffed to bits to have one. One little boy donned his hat and told one of the chefs that he wanted to be a chef when he grew up, and the chef replied, “You know what, being a chef is the funnest, most rewarding job I have ever had. People see food as security and comfort, and I love preparing food that is going to make people happy! It’s a great feeling.” My husband and I both thought it was sweet of the chef to take the time to chat with and encourage his seven-year old fan. It’s something I don’t see very often in the restaurant world, especially at chains, and it made a positive impression.

Reserve this table for a chance to dine with the Pope!

The front of house service is also friendly – our server was efficient, friendly and accommodating. We had never been to Buca di Beppo before and our server patiently guided us through portion sizes along with the daily specials. Lunch portions are single servings but very generous, and dinner portions are served family-style to share. They come in two sizes: small (serves 2-3) and large (serves 4-6). I chose a lunch portion of Ravioli al Pomodoro (cheese-filled ravioli in marinara sauce) and a side salad, and Steve opted for a bowl of Italian wedding soup and the daily special of baked garlic chicken and fettuccini alfredo.

I was startled by the size of the salad. For $2.49 I was expecting a small helping of greens and maybe a tomato wedge or some shaved carrot. How wrong could I be? This was a super-duper helping of romaine and iceberg – in truth a meal in itself – and although it was skimpy on the extras (one each green and black olive, and a single pepperoncini) and heavy on the red onion and dressing, I found it addictive. Usually I don’t care much for salad drowning in dressing, but this balsamic vinaigrette tasted delicate enough to pull it off with panache. Steve enjoyed the soup - it's chock full of spicy sausage so is off-limits to vegetarians, but he was impressed with the complexity of flavors in each spoonful.

That pepperoncini looks lonely in the side salad

The Italian wedding soup - not vegetarian

Steve and I are rather picky and often let down by the stuff that passes for bread at area restaurants, but Buca di Beppo’s bread is worth mentioning because the thick slices of warm, crusty bread are better than average. Another nice touch: the butter pats are soft upon arrival and easy to spread, and we made quick work of the entire basket. I tried to wheedle out of the server where they get their bread (it is not made in-house) but she didn’t know and neither apparently did the general manager. I’m guessing Breadsmiths.

Ravioli al Pomodoro doesn't photograph well

Italian cuisine is usually very vegetarian-friendly, and Buca di Beppo is no exception. There are a couple of salads, a brushetta appetizer (I saw our server glide past with a “small” portion for a nearby table, and let me tell you, it’s huge) and several entrées: aside from the aforementioned ravioli al pomodoro, there is fettuccini alfredo, spaghetti marinara, cheese manicotti, cheese-stuffed baked ravioli, eggplant parmigiana and margherita pizza. The marinara sauce is tangy and deftly seasoned – not too garlicky, not too salty and just the right balance of oregano and basil. Although I am loath to admit it, I thought theirs was on par with my own homemade sauce, and I may take a leaf from their cookbook and try petite dicing my tomatoes next time. There were five raviolis in the dish, each approximately two inches long and half an inch thick. It may not sound like much but it was more than I could handle, especially after the salad and two baskets of bread, which is even more fabulous when piled with marinara sauce.

The special of the day: a little too cheesy for my husband

We visited Buca di Beppo early in the day when the restaurant was fairly quiet, but as it began to fill up the noise levels increased and I can only imagine what a full house must sound like. Still, plenty of restaurants suffer from high decibel levels and it’s a minor issue compared to the quality – and quantity – of the food and service we found here. All in all we were pleasantly surprised by this Minneapolis-based chain and are already planning a return visit with my brother’s family. I can hardly wait to see my niece and nephew in little chef hats.

Buca di Beppo on Urbanspoon


liz said...

great review. it is nice to hear good things about a chain from another food blogger... i feel like i can trust you guys more than just some random person. i've been to buca di beppo a few times (in michigan while visiting family) and always thought it was ok but kind of lacking in flavor. maybe the one down here is better?

Veggie Option said...

I can't imagine that the food would taste different from chain to chain, but I liked the marinara sauce. Steve wasn't overawed by his dish though - too much cheese.

Sara said...

I love Buca.... I used to love it even more when I was a kid though! But what's absolutely to DIE for--- order the side of spaghetti and add grilled vegetables that are in the normal pastas, like eggplant and such---TO DIE FOR!