Mangia, mangia

Dec 12, 2001 at 12:00 am

The mass-produced “restaurant in a box” is usually inferior to the homegrown talent. It’s more irritating if the chainmeisters are promoting a “theme,” and even worse if that theme involves an ersatz family-owned experience.

But thousands of people love Buca di Beppo (“Joe’s Basement”), a fast-growing attempt to re-create the Southern Italian immigrant experience of the 1950s. You can barely get a reservation at the Utica store, opened Sept. 30.

The surprising thing is that Joe’s food is really good — not to mention cheap. And the basement experience is done with a witty tongue in cheek: sort of a “we’re laughing at ourselves for doing this ‘theme’ thing at the same time that we’re doing a good job with the ’50s kitsch, but we’re really laughing all the way to the bank because we are a corporation, after all.”

The corporate mission is to take diners back to the ’50s, when families were large and the meatballs were too. “Family” photos and posters of every famous Italian except Mussolini adorn the walls. Pictures of monthly “Miss Buca’s” are scattered around, and one alcove is denoted the “pope’s table,” with a bust of his holiness encased in plastic in the middle. There’s a photo of the Venus de Milo with a real woman’s head on its shoulders.

Luckily, the food does not reproduce the ’50s, a wasteland decade for the taste buds.

The fictional Joe whose basement this is acknowledges no such thing as an individual portion. The small-size pasta (say $11.95 for spaghetti with meatballs) feeds at least three, maybe five. Salads, antipasti and desserts are similarly proportioned. The only catch is that everyone has to agree on ordering the same thing.

With these mass quantities, how does the cook make the food taste fresh? The marinara is pleasingly chunky with tomatoes, not a uniform puree. Some versions, as on the mountain of mussels, are quite spicy. The Caesar salad actually includes anchovies. A simple entrée of chicken with lemon is buttery and dotted with capers.

The rigatoni country-style includes huge chunks of fennel-infused sausage and white beans in a creamy sauce. The pasta dishes are authentically Italian in that the sauce doesn’t overwhelm the pasta.

One false note: if you order the otherwise very good green salad with prosciutto, you’ll find it fried into none other than bacon bits! Parmesan comes in a shaker rather than freshly grated.

Chocolate cannoli are light and crunchy. The tiramisu tastes strongly of rum (not the more authentic Marsals); it’s a dense version, and superior.

The wine list promotes Chianti in a basket, the kind we thought was so cool in our college days. All wines — red, white and rosé — are served chilled.

A date place it’s not; it would be silly for two people to eat here, unless they order the “per due” (for two) special. This is the only place on the menu where the price structure is in line with other restaurants. One night you could order the chicken with lemon and a feather-light ravioli for $22.95.

Afterward, rent Big Night and fall asleep on the couch.

There’s a Buca di Beppo in Livonia and another is planned for Birmingham in January.

(Eats: 4 stars, Experience: 3 stars)

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].