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In the '80s and early '90s, when restaurants finally acknowledged that food-savvy diners were as interested in process as in product, many fine establishments did something about it: They installed a table in the kitchen. This way patrons could stare fascinated at the chef even as they supped on his or her fabulous cuisine. Naturally, snaring the kitchen table, usually very much in demand, became a sign of prestige. Only the most important diners, clearly, should be allowed to view the master's work.
Poppycock, says Buca di Beppo, a three-month-old southern Italian eatery in Fort Lauderdale. Not only does this deliberately supercasual restaurant have a table in the kitchen that seats six, it doesn't care who sits there as long as they pay their bill (and leave in a timely manner so new customers can have a chance). In fact Buca di Beppo takes what started as trend-conscious catering to customers and turns it into a gimmick: Even if you haven't reserved the kitchen table, all diners are paraded through the kitchen on the way to one of the four dining rooms. Which naturally tempts me to corrupt an old cliché -- if you can't stand the heat, stay out of Buca di Beppo.
Actually, if you can't stand chain restaurants, you probably ought to avoid it. Buca di Beppo, which roughly translates to "Joe's Basement," calls itself "a collection of neighborhood restaurants" and is named for the first restaurant that company president Joseph P. Micatrotto's grandfather opened in Cleveland's Little Italy. But whatever twist the corporation puts on semantics, the fact is that the Fort Lauderdale location is the most recent in a chain of 35 links chokeholding 18 states throughout the nation. Take the Olive Garden strain, pollinate it with Romano's Macaroni Grill, and voilà! Good ol' Giuseppe's third-generation family tavern.
5975 N. Federal Highway
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33308
For all of that, though, Buca di Beppo is a novelty for South Florida, and plenty of people -- even some whose opinion I value -- enjoy the joint. That's because, not unfathomably, the 242-seat restaurant is likable. Everything from décor to serving style is done with tongue tucked firmly in cheek; waiters tease you about your appetite or admonish you to finish your meal. From the center of the Pope's Table, a large round table that seats 18 in a private room, the bust of a pontiff beams beatifically. Church vestments are displayed in the Cardinal's Room, upholstered in so much red and bowered by so many flowers it looks as if a murder has been both committed and commemorated. Elsewhere, every available inch of wall -- and ceiling -- space is plastered with irreverent photos and posters (about 3000 in all), only about half of which feature Sophia Loren. And then there's the men's restroom, where women are invited to peek in at the numerous photos and prints of little boys peeing.
No matter where you wind up sitting, you can depend on two things: getting lost on the way to those little boys, since your initial trek will have been through the kitchen; and a decibel level equaling that of a Nine Inch Nails concert. Because Buca di Beppo serves family-size portions appropriate for two to five adults to consume, the restaurant is already a popular place for big parties celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and showers, and the chief entertainment seems to be showing how loud you can screech. On the plus side, you sure won't be able to hear cell phones going off in here -- the only thing ringing will be your ears.
The quality of your service, however, is not a sure thing. The restaurant employs 90 workers, not all of whom appear to be on the same Buca di Beppo page. One evening we waited 30 minutes for a juice glass of chardonnay to arrive, had to request bread and plates during the first course, and cooled our heels for an hour before entrées appeared. The waiter was so slow that, by the time he got around to ordering our food, two different items had been 86ed, and he had to backpedal twice. Another night every single course we ordered -- salad, pasta, and meat items -- appeared simultaneously and with such speed we couldn't help looking for Mario Andretti pictures on the wall. (I'm sure he's there somewhere, along with Joe DiMaggio.) In fact our waitress was so quick off the mark that she'd be gone before we even finished placing our order, which is why every time she delivered something to the table, say an iced tea, we'd have another request for her, say an iced tea for someone else in our party.
Then, too, the servers' knowledge of the fare fluctuates. "Is there sauce on the Calabrese pizza?" we asked our waiter, who assured us there was. Nope. Plenty of thin-sliced potatoes, a few skinny rounds of tomato, plus a host of olives, onions, prosciutto bits, rosemary leaves, and flakes of pecorino cheese, but no sauce. Votes, therefore, were split on this one-by-two-foot, Neapolitan-style pizza: yea from those of us who liked the meld of flavors and aromas, nay from those who wanted something a bit more succulent. Our waitress fortunately knew that the linguine with white clam sauce was spicy and warned us accordingly. We still didn't care for it, and not just because the crushed dried red pepper flakes overwhelmed the brothy sauce but because the chopped clams were tinged green from their own waste product and tasted fishy.