The Plaza's Italian underdog sends happy diners home with scraps.

A Religious Experience 

The Plaza's Italian underdog sends happy diners home with scraps.

Shortly after the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2, the executives at the Minneapolis-based Buca di Beppo restaurants had to make a quick corporate decision. Should the plaster busts of the Polish pontiff, a dominant decorative feature of the "Pope Room" in most of the chain's locations, be removed? It was evidently decided that it would be in good taste to take the painted busts — which were in questionable taste anyway — out of their protective Plexiglas cubes (sensitively mounted on revolving lazy Susans in the center of the Pope Room tables) and ship them back to corporate headquarters. A rumor started floating in the restaurant industry that Buca di Beppo planned to offer the John Paul II heads to Catholic schools.

Shortly after the Vatican elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to be the 265th pontiff, Benedict XVI, on April 19, Buca di Beppo pounced into creative action. Freshly molded Pope Benedict busts were hurriedly shipped out for those whirling tabletop displays. God forbid those slyly cheeky dining rooms should be without papal focal points. After all, one of the waiters at Kansas City's Buca di Beppo confessed to me, the Pope Room is one of the most popular dining areas on the Country Club Plaza. "We can seat as many as 18 adults in here," he said proudly, "or dozens of teenage girls. They love it!"

Pope Benedict XVI may not mind Buca di Beppo's strange tribute. He even has a connection to the culinary world: His mother once worked as a cook in several German hotels. But a devoutly Catholic friend of mine finds the private dining room to be "utterly sinful and a religious mockery." No, he prefers dining in the "Sophia Loren Room," with myriad photographic images of the busty Italian film star. He finds it to be much more wholesome.

The 12-year-old Buca di Beppo chain would probably prefer to be considered wholesome (it specializes in "family-style" dinners, after all), even though there's been plenty of devilish behavior going down in the corporate offices this year. First, the company's chief executive, Joe Micatrotto, resigned after it was discovered that he had used Buca funds to buy himself a villa in Tuscany. (He had to turn the property and $900,000 over to the corporation.) A few months later, the company's CFO and chief information officer were fired for some alleged financial hanky-panky. Penance wasn't enough; a corporate exorcism was in order.

The current chief executive is Wallace Doolin, who once served as president of Kansas City-based Applebee's. You might say he has a full platter of problems to confront, including an SEC investigation of the former executives and shareholder lawsuits. A different lawsuit was closer to home: Last September, Buca di Beppo filed suit against the owners of the Country Club Plaza for leasing space to a rival Italian restaurant chain, Bravo Development Co. Buca was positively oltraggiato over the addition of the more glamorous Brio Tuscan Grille to the Plaza mix of eating joints. But the case was recently (and quietly) settled out of court.

I can understand why Buca felt threatened by Brio, but the two restaurants couldn't be more different in personality and culinary style. Their approaches are as diametrically opposed as chubby Luciano Pavarotti and studly Antonio Sabato Jr. My friends prefer Brio, but there's something lovable, in an underdog way, about Buca di Beppo. The underground location may have seemed perfect back when it opened in 2001 — the restaurant's name literally translates as "Joe's basement" — but there's an unexpected claustrophobic quality to the maze of hallways and dining rooms, and the dimly lighted bar, right off the front entrance, invariably smells like a damp cellar.

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