Buca di Beppo
1722 Galleria Blvd., Franklin. 778-1321
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 5-11 p.m. Fri.; noon-11 p.m. Sat.; noon-9 p.m. Sun.
It has been several days since my friend Gay and I extracted ourselves from our table at Esca restaurant on West 43rd Street in Manhattan, and still I am in culinary afterglow, wallowing in the delights of the spectacular meal we enjoyed last Wednesday night. Esca is a member of the Mario Batali restaurant family, with chef/co-owner David Pasternak in residence in the kitchen. When Pasternak came to Nashville with Batali’s posse to cook the T.J. Martell Foundation wine dinner in March, he extended an invitation for me to dine at Esca when I next went to New York. Several months later, I got my chance. He met us at the bar before we were even seated and proposed that we forget the menu and let him take charge of our meal. I love that in a man.
Esca is billed as an Italian seafood restaurant, and what followed was four different courses of the freshest seafood I have tasted outside of pulling a fish off my own line and laying it on a grill. Pasternak takes a slightly more sophisticated approach. The first two courses were crudo, the Italian version of ceviche. We received two different rounds of three bite-sized portions of raw fish, laid atop palate-popping potions of infused olive oils and citrus, and we shared plates of briny scallops and oysters sitting seductively on the half-shell. The third course was an intensely flavored squid-ink pasta tossed with sautéed squid, olive oil and searing-hot dried red chili peppers. Finally, we enjoyed a fillet of fish delicately poached in a buttery broth to sublime perfection.
Esca was not our only culinary score that day; we lunched at 66, the contemporary Chinese restaurant recently opened by star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose eponymous flagship restaurant rates the rare four stars. The new 66 offers diners a minimalist impression of Shanghai via a select and creative assortment of dim sum (e.g., shrimp and foie gras dumplings with pineapple dipping sauce), appetizers, soups, noodles, small vegetable plates and modestly portioned entrée-type items.
Earlier that morning, a headline on the front page of the “Dining In Dining Out” section of The New York Times caught my eye: “Chains Bring Strip Mall Flavor, or Lack of It, to Manhattan.” The story reported, with amusement, irony and alarm, the recent infiltration of chain restaurants like Applebee’s, Olive Garden and Outback Steakhouse into New York City. Red Lobster will soon open a store in Times Square, an area now so rife with all-American retail icons that it is nearly impossible to distinguish it from a suburban shopping mall. While it’s not surprising that these restaurants would find success in such a tourist trap, what is puzzling to some industry observers is that the chains are also infiltrating hipper locales like Chelsea, the East Side and Battery Park City, each of which contains dozens of independent neighborhood eateries within its bounds. When asked what she finds appealing about the restaurant, an Applebee’s customer answered, “We like the bland, overpriced food.”
While many New Yorkers see the creeping infiltration of chain restaurants as dire warning of the decline of their civilization, Nashville tends to celebrate the arrival of each new national chain as if it somehow validated us. Nowhere in the region are they welcomed so enthusiastically as in Cool Springs, which presents a dizzying and barely distinguishable collection of corporate-owned eateries. One of the latest to hunker down on Moores Lane off I-65 is Buca di Beppo, which took seed in Minneapolis in 1993 and has since cloned itself to nearly 100 locations in 26 states, including New York (though not yet Manhattan).
The premise of Buca di Beppo is southern Italian food in mammoth portions, served family-style in an exuberant, frenetically festive atmosphere. Right away, I have a problem with this concept. I am nutritionally and morally opposed to mammoth portions, a front-running factor in America’s very frightening obesity crisis. As a restaurant patron, I’m also opposed to “family-style” dining when I am paying someone else to feed me. We eat family-style at home nearly every night. When I go out to eat, even on a personal basis, I pretty much insist that everyone at the table order a different dish, which allows us to sample much of the menu.
To sample much of the menu at Buca di Beppo, one would have to bring every member of New York and New Jersey’s “families,” if you know what I mean and I’m sure you do. Instead, I compiled a group of five adults, two teenaged girls, three growing boys and two smaller children. Even with that large a party, we barely scraped the surface.
In the literature describing its menu, Buca boasts about its bath mat-sized pizzas and its enormous orders of spaghetti and meatballs, which contain 2 pounds of pasta and three half-pound meatballs; the chicken cacciatoredubbed “7 pounds of love”consists of a whole chicken over garlic mashed potatoes with ladles of sauce. In the Beppo family, a small Caesar salad feeds four (though it easily made the rounds of our table of 12), and a round of garlic bread is as large as a hubcap. A dish of eggplant parmigiana from the “Buca per Due” (i.e., “for two”) section is sufficient for a family of six.
Setting aside my personal prejudices against chain restaurants, corporate-designed menus, cookie-cutter decor, obscene portion sizes and the limited selection process, here’s how to make the most of your evening at Buca.
First, take a crowd. If you don’t have a big family, recruit one. Between the noise, the other families and the portion sizes, Buca is not the place for a romantic dinner for courting couples (despite the “Buca per Due” offerings).
Make reservations: Buca takes them and, in our experience, honors them promptly. Depending on the size of your party, you can request certain tables, like the table in the kitchen (which seats six), the Pope’s Table (which can accommodate up to 18), tables of various sizes in the Cardinal, Wine or Poster rooms, or cozy booths in the small bar.
Bring a sense of humor. The walls of Buca di Beppo are plastered with glamorous and lively black-and-white photos of legendary Italian characters like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Joe DiMaggio, Luciano Pavarotti, Sophia Loren, mobsters and, of course, various popes. There is enough tacky art to decorate Graceland, along with comical cartoons and quirky signage, including my personal favorite, in the reception area of the restaurant: “Yes, an enema would be just the thing.”
But mostly, bring your appetite. Though lacking in sophistication and creativity, Buca Di Beppo differs from most chain restaurants in that it packs plenty of flavor in its dishes (along with fat and cheese). It is very much like the hearty, comforting Italian family fare I knew growing up near the Pierdimenico, Petrucci, Bucci and Pugliese families in Delaware. The garlic bread is oiled, studded with slivers of fresh garlic, then heated; the tomato sauce is very nicely seasoned, thick, tomatoey and not too sweet. The greens on the Caesar we ordered were crisp and nicely chilled, generously sprinkled with grated Parmesan; the tomatoes on the caprese salad were surprisingly red and ripe, and the mozzarella cheese was creamy and fresh. The pasta on the spaghetti was cooked al dente, and the meatballs were moist and meaty.
The eight different pizzas all come on a hand-pulled, very thin, almost matzo-like oblong crust; when heaped with excellent toppings like potatoes, olives, artichokes and prosciutto, eating a slice requires a two-handed approach. The veal marsala was on par with Nashville’s finer Italian restaurants, with lightly breaded slices of pounded veal and big, firm halved mushrooms sautéed in a well-balanced sweet marsala wine sauce. Vegetarians who opt for the eggplant parmigiana will have a hard time beating off the carnivores; it’s rich and creamy, and the roasted eggplant lacks the bitterness that often mars this dish. Our only disappointment was the manicotti, which were dry and tasted as if they had spent too much time under a heat lamp.
You will also want to bring the credit card. Though menu items seem reasonably priced, the tally can easily creep up if you don’t resist the temptation to try several things. For example: A small Caesar salad is $11.95, the regular-sized eggplant parmigiana is $17.95, a Calabrese pizza is $17.45, the veal marsala is $22.95, and pork chops Siciliano (consisting of four chops) is $29.95. Sides are all à la carte.
Service was efficient and accommodating, especially considering the energy of the children at our table. One of the adults in our party noted, during a particularly trying moment, that if Buca di Beppo were truly a family dining experience, there would be children-only tables. There’s an idea.