“Can you believe we’re getting a Buca di Beppo?” I’d ask people, eager to share my excitement.
They would usually look blank. “Buca di what?”
While the Italian franchise has been popular elsewhere, it seemed most people here weren’t familiar with it. The restaurant, which roughly translates to Joe’s Basement, launched in 1993 in a basement apartment in Minneapolis and now has multiple franchise locations across the country (and in England and Mexico).
The Buca concept is unique. Dinners are served family-style in small (serves two) or large (serves four) helpings. So if you go, you need to go hungry, be prepared to take home leftovers or go in a group and be willing to share. (Note, however, that lunch is available in single servings, starting at $6.99).
The family atmosphere is further emphasized by the décor – red-checked oilcloths, and red-and-yellow walls covered with black-and-white photos of movie stars, mobsters, pinups and Italian life.
The Pope room, in particular, is famous – a circular yellow room covered with portraits of popes past and present, with a regal chair at a round table.
My brother Mark’s office was having a work party where family and friends were invited, so we decided to tag along for the group experience. We were ushered into the Sinatra room – aptly showcasing photos of a young and older Sinatra and members of the Rat Pack in their heyday.
There were about eight of us, and as Mark talked shop with his friends, my husband, Sean, and I scanned the huge menu. Prices averaged around $20 for two-serving dinners and $30 for four-serving dinners – with a range of noodle dishes, baked pastas, raviolis, meat dishes and pizzas. Appetizers and desserts are available – at prices and servings meant to be shared (I promised myself to come back with enough people one day to order the brownie sundae, 12 brownies topped with ice cream, whipped cream and sprinkles).
Several of us had brought coupons, but the fine print said only one could be used per table. I flagged down our waitress to double-check whether that meant per check or literally per table, and she confirmed the latter.
I wasn’t really sure how we were going to be ordering, but it looked as though several of the work group were planning to share, so the three of us decided to split a small appetizer of fried calamari, a small Caesar salad and a large spaghetti with “half-pound” meatballs.
Our waitress, who was also named Danielle, went around the table and while a couple of the ladies opted to share a pizza, most everyone else seemed shy about sharing, each ordering the small serving of a pasta entrée, except for Linda, who went for the large lasagna.
“Are you sure?” asked Danielle. “It’s really, really large.”
“I’m planning to share,” said Linda with a nod and a smile.
While the rest of the table enjoyed their drinks, our appetizer and salad came quickly. Some of the fried calamari – the tentacles in particular – looked dark, and I was worried that they were overcooked. While some might have been a little chewy, most were cooked perfectly, with a crunchy, spicy coating that was a trifle salty – but still addictive. The spicy tomato dipping sauce – flecked with red pepper seeds – added to the heat.
The Caesar salad following it was refreshing. It was simple but rich – cool, crisp, torn romaine leaves, drenched in Caesar dressing, grated Parmesan and seasoned crunchy croutons.
The first big laugh of the night came when Danielle plopped down two giant yellow cans of tomatoes in front of the girls who were sharing the pizza. As they stared, Danielle explained, “They’re to put the pizza on.”
The second came when the entrees arrived, and Danielle set the slab of lasagna – more than a foot long and at least 4 to 5 inches deep – in front of an astonished Linda. She was planning to share the lasagna with her husband at home – and he would definitely have enough for dinner, and then some.
The third was when our bowl of spaghetti arrived – “Two pounds of pasta,” said Danielle – and the laughter continued at the sight of the three fist-size meatballs inside the bowl. Danielle was asked, and quickly brought more sauce for our pasta (it’s also available by the jar).
The spaghetti was perhaps a trifle past al dente, but the sauce clung lightly to it and had a good tomato flavor, not too sweet. When I cook meatballs at home, I don’t add bread crumbs because I’m in favor of a full, meaty flavor. I could tell bread was included in these, but they were still good – comparable to meatballs I’d had at other Italian restaurants.
We all ate our fill, and with a practiced hand, Danielle came around to us all with foil to-go containers in various sizes, along with bags. We all had enough for a hearty lunch the next day – and in Linda’s case, possibly for the next week, as she carefully hoisted her lasagna, not noticeably smaller, into her to-go container (our fourth big laugh).
And that seems to be the fun of Buca di Beppo. Whether you’re there for a work get-together, a birthday party, a family dinner or a special occasion (they’re even open on Thanksgiving Day), it’s a place for great fun, laughter, sharing – and of course, a lot of food.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Buca di Beppo Augusta, Augusta Mall (at the entrance to the old food court, to the left of Barnes and Noble)
HOURS: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
SECOND HELPING: (706) 733-5475, (706) 733-5561 (fax), www.bucadibeppo.com/restaurants/ga/augusta or find them on Facebook