BUCA DI BEPPO, pasta, minnesota
It's really hard to believe that the ebullient, joyous, cartoonish world of Buca di Beppo had its beginnings in Minnesota. Minnesota has long been, for the most part, a land of stolid, blond-haired, square-faced Scandinavians -- not the sort of folks who raise their voices in a rousing rendition of "That's Amore," while they tuck into oversized platters of fried calamari, mussels marinara, spaghetti with meatballs, eggplant parmigiana and chicken cacciatore, all washed down with rivers of red wine.
And yet, it was in Minnesota that Buca di Beppo was born, and where there are currently five branches -- in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Maple Grove, Burnsville and Eden Prairie. There are Buca di Beppos as well in Milwaukee, Seattle, and Chicago. There are multiple locations all over California, Florida, and Texas. Minnesota may not be the spumoni capital of the world, but Buca di Beppo certainly has legs.
Buca di Beppo is often compared to Carmine's in New York, for both joints are notable for red sauce chow served in portions more appropriate to armies than round tables of heavy forks. The notable points of difference are that where Carmine's looks like John Giotti's Ravenite Social Club, Buca looks like Sicily's oldest indoor flea market. And where the food at Carmine's is okay, but no better than that, the chow at Buca is good stuff -- as long as you don't mind blowing your diet for the whole rest of the year on one meal.
The folks responsible for the Buca di Beppo chain variously describe their creation as "a Southern Italian immigrant restaurant" and a recreation of the "Italian supper clubs of the '40s and '50s." Actually, it's closer to a Smithsonian of Italiana, with what must be hundreds of photographs on the walls of gangsters, priests, pretty girls, grouchy mamas, musicians and a remarkably large number of what we used to (in less enlightened times) call fat people but now refer to as being avoirdupois challenged. Buca is to Italians what Sammy's Roumanian in New York is to Jews -- a place where you can both revel in your roots, and chuckle at them at the same time.
The trick to eating here is to go with a lot of people. (There's even a Pope's Table that can probably accommodate 20 hungry souls.) All the portions are for groups of four, which makes the prices -- in the high teens -- a terrific deal. And this is chow that sticks to your ribs, and various other internal organs -- garlic bread, roasted peppers with garlic and anchovies, pizzas (and good ones too) as big as bread boards (try the one topped with gorgonzola, provolone, mozzarella and romano), rigatoni tossed with white beans and sausage, the aforementioned chicken cacciatore served over garlic mashed potatoes, linguine topped with an ocean of seafood.
There's a commitment here to piling as many calories on the plate as possible. And don't expect to undereat -- the relentlessly cheery servers will goad you into joyous gluttony. You'll leave happy -- with a shopping bag full of food for the morrow.
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