The Basement Tapes
We're just two steps inside the front door, and immediately the host and a couple of employees lounging around the foyer start working it hard, trying to turn "Hi, there. How many this evening? Smoking or non?" into an Abbott and Costello routine. Then our seater takes over, and he's so hell-bent on showing off the restaurant's oh-so-hilarious elements that any attempt to get him to deviate from his carefully prepared dialogue -- say, with some witty repartee that might help distinguish him from one of those headsets that museums use in the place of human guides -- is met with a nervous laugh and a rapid retreat back to the regularly scheduled blather.
His tour of duty ends once he's dragged us through the entire restaurant (all customers have to go through the kitchen whether they like it or not, he explains, laughing at this merriment), plopped us down at a red-and-white-checkered table, and informed us that in order to find out what the restaurant offers in the way of food -- which is, of course, just a small part of the whole Experience of Being Here -- we'll have to stand in the middle of the dining room and gaze over the heads of other folks to read the menu on the wall, which is comfortably visible to only about half of the diners. After the seater leaves, our server appears, and he's not sure if he's supposed to wait on us or entertain us, so he waffles between the two: scolding us for wanting extra items like, oh, the cream we'd requested when he asked if we wanted that or sugar with our coffee; pretending to be Mom when we can't possibly finish the enormous platters of food; and rolling his eyes when he has to go get a takeout box, as though every person who's ever eaten at this perpetrator of portion overkill hasn't needed him to do the same.
Now, that's Italian?
In its marketing materials, Buca di Beppo, a chain based out of an American city well-known for its enclave of Italian immigrants -- that would be Minneapolis, natch -- suggests that a meal here will "conjure up images of a big Italian family gathered around the table." Although I didn't get that, Buca's several-month-old incarnation in LoDo did remind me of other food experiences: Maggiano's with an attitude, a tiramisu version of the Cheesecake Factory, the Rainforest Cafe with 1,500 black-and-white photos of fat Italians and other tchatchkes (a black-velvet Pope!) lining the walls instead of thunderstorm-illuminated animatronics.
Buca's marketers have labeled the food "immigrant Southern Italian" so that no one can really call them on the carpet over authenticity issues (hell, my Irish grandmother made terrible corned beef, but if we'd known we could have called it "immigrant" cuisine, I'm sure it would have been delish). Then again, Buca may be confused about the location of Southern Italy, since the map on its placemats puts Naples right next to Switzerland. (Apparently I got ripped off when I bought a train ticket that took me from Milan to well south of Rome, when obviously I could have just walked to Naples from Lugano). But, wait -- maybe it's a joke. Ah ha ha ha, I get it: Buca's saying that Northern Italy doesn't count here.
No wonder the kids in this country are way behind the rest of the world in geography.
Anyway, Buca's notion of Southern Italian immigrant cooking -- as executed by the chain's executive chef, Vittorio Renda, a native of Calabria (Italy, not Minnesota) -- allows it to introduce diners to the cuisine's "vitality and simplicity," which means the kitchen doesn't have to get involved with preparing more complex dishes. Instead, it keeps heaping on the food -- "family-style," so that each portion serves between two and six. What arrives on those enormous platters is exactly what you'd expect from a kitchen that cooks many of the components ahead of time and then assembles them according to the order: The sauces are never given a chance to absorb the flavors of the meat, and the vegetables disguised in that sauce can be identified only after you place them in your mouth, since they've added nothing to the overall preparation. Then again, you can count on the menu descriptions to exactly match the dish. For instance, tortelloni with cream, mushrooms, tomatoes, peas and broccoli ($19.95), which, like most of Buca's dishes, is available in one size that feeds two to four, is tortelloni with cream, mushrooms, tomatoes, peas and broccoli. Too bad "flavor" wasn't listed as an ingredient, too. It was also sadly lacking from the spaghetti with meat sauce ($10.95), which offered little more than pasta, some ground beef, a dab of olive oil and -- surprise! -- a few diced tomatoes.
There are some flavorful exceptions, however. The Caesar salad ($10.45 for a small large enough to feed an army) was heavy on the garlic and salt, a little bit creamy, and grainy from plenty of parmesan; in short, it was wicked tasty. The side of heavenly garlic mashed potatoes ($7.95) was in the same size bowl we put on the table to serve twelve at Thanksgiving, and the chicken marsala ($19.95) sported a sauce so sweet it should be listed under desserts. The pizzas, which range in price from $9.95 to $17.95, all featured sturdy, crispy-edged crusts and tons of toppings in good proportion to the sauces and cheeses. My favorites were the arrabbiata, with four cheeses and a super-spicy sausage, and the bianca, with Gorgonzola included among the cheeses and lots of well-cooked red onion.
But the dry chicken cacciatore ($19.95) was like eating a tomato-covered pile of those cute little hats worn by the immigrant tykes pictured at Ellis Island, and the bruschetta ($6.95) was like eating the photos themselves, tearing and gnawing and tearing and gnawing. The spaghetti matriciana ($15.95) was all about bacon, and while normally there's no harm in that, this was precooked bacon that had hardened into little nuggets that looked -- and, I imagined, tasted -- like those pig's ears the grocery stores sell for dogs. The fried calamari ($11.95) had so much breading that I never did find the squid, and the slimy eggplant parmigiana ($15.95) was reminiscent of a wetsuit -- considering the size of the thing, Dom DeLuise's wetsuit -- after it had been rolled in sand.
The size of the desserts -- each $8.95 -- was even more frightening. The kitchen must have used an entire loaf of bread for the decent bread pudding, then layered it with chocolate and raisins; a good, if not great, caramel sauce came in a pitcher on the side. The tiramisu looked just like the mashed potatoes and had the kind of texture that thrills toothless toddlers, but there was also enough rum and espresso in the thing to keep four adults jiggy for the next six hours (we know this to be a fact). The best of the batch: three fat cannoli, each freshly filled with runny cheese so packed with powdered sugar that it made our teeth hurt, sprinkled with unnaturally green pistachio nuts and glued to the plate with a thick chocolate goo that stuck to the roofs of our mouths and anything else it accidentally touched, which was everything on the table. This very goo was what finally forced our waiter to deal with us directly as diners who required his services rather than devoted fans who longed to hear him sing "That's Amore" along with Dean just one more time.
Contrary to what novice Italian-language students keep insisting, Buca di Beppo translates to "Big Joe's Basement," and as eatertainment goes, this sinks pretty low. But since the concept of experiencing fake reality in restaurants is obviously successful, I'm hoping it can be applied to other areas of life. Instead of dealing with the dirty, exhausting experience of mountain biking, for example, you could just get on a stationary fat-tire and flip through some John Fielder photos. Or, rather than experiencing the terror of skiing down Mary Jane, you could bounce up and down on the couch attached to a couple of two-by-fours while someone throws snow at your face. And rather than tasting the real Italy, you could attempt to saw through the world's largest, densest meatball while the Pope looks on and Dean Martin croons in your ear.
Yes, I'm starting to see the possibilities.
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