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.
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.
Fried calamari wasn't inferior in quality, but some of the rings were tough and chewy. The marinara sauce that accompanied the dish had also been sprinkled with crushed red pepper, a distracting element only if you liked the tinny flavor of the chunky tomato sauce. The same tomato sauce napped spaghetti and meatballs, an enormous platter that had my table, on one occasion, singing, "On top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese ." Too bad the meatball about which we were yodeling was tough going: hard, dense, and shot through with gristle.
If you're looking for appetizers, stick with obvious ones. Garlic bread, served in a baking dish, was crusty focaccia liberally dosed with slices of the fragrant cloves, and a caesar salad, though it lacked croutons, featured fresh romaine in a well-balanced dressing. Then follow those up with meat-stuffed tortelloni garnished with mushrooms, tomatoes, peas, and broccoli florets, all doused in a cream sauce that needed only a little salt or grated cheese to enliven it. For a main course, stick with chicken. We found a special of tender, pan-fried breasts topped with a tricolor bell pepper sauce more satisfying than other meat dishes, such as veal limone. The veal's lemon sauce, rife with white beans and chopped escarole, was tasty. But though the meat had been pounded like laundry against a river rock, it was still rubbery.
And don't expect miracles for dessert, even if you're sitting at the Pope's Table. Ricotta-stuffed cannoli would have been good had they not been nestled into an all-encompassing mattress of hot fudge; on the flip side, spumoni would have been even more boring without the chocolate sauce. Cheesecake with raspberry sauce was like a little boy peeing -- it started well but petered out in the end when the crushed hazelnuts that topped it yielded shell fragments.
I've worked in too many kitchens to want to dine in one -- even this one, which is, for obvious reasons, clean and orderly as restaurant kitchens go. To satisfy a craving for basic southern Italian cuisine, I could just as easily put together a meal from Ronzoni and Classico. I also tend to value my sense of hearing. But for all its flaws, Buca di Beppo is undeniably fun. And for those who don't demand more from dinner, the basement is the perfect place to eat it.