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.

I can say this with some authority because I've eaten four meals in that room, sitting in the same damned booth. Recently my friend Bob and I wandered in for lunch and once again were escorted to that very table. ("It must have your name on it," Bob said, laughing.) The room was empty except for one other booth, where several very attractive young women sat spellbound while the loudest in the group, blessed with a very theatrical voice, was giving a dramatic monologue about the anguish of childbirth. It was a riveting account, to be sure, but I asked to be moved to a different room — any room! — in that labyrinth of campy, kitschy dining areas. I don't want to hear about pain with my panini.

Lunch is a relatively new thing here; like many other venues in the Buca chain, the Plaza location was a dinner-only operation until this year. Now it offers a limited collection of single-portion items, culled from the most popular offerings on the more expansive dinner menu, including a trio of pizzas, three salads, four panini sandwiches, lemon chicken, eggplant parmigiana, chicken parmigiana and chicken Marsala. The prices aren't exactly cheap (though a big plate of decent spaghetti and meatballs is a bargain at $7.95), but the portions are generous and the service is snappy.

The margherita pizza was drippy with molten mozzarella on a paper-thin crust but required a lot more fresh basil. And the mozzarella Caprese panini was tasty enough but awkwardly constructed. Bob ordered the lunch version of his favorite Buca di Beppo entrée, chicken with lemon (a bland version of a dish that's done to perfection at Lidia's), and could barely finish it, which is saying something.

I prefer Buca di Beppo during the livelier dinner hour because the bright dining rooms — not that shadowy, stinky bar — are noisily festive. I attribute some of the more raucous customer behavior to overstimulation by the potent house Chianti and the zany décor. (Yes, it's contrived zany, but on the humorless Country Club Plaza, that's practically sacrilegious.) The night I dined with Marilyn and willowy Summer, we found something kind of comforting about all of the retro details. You don't find many modern Italian restaurants that still cling to red-and-white-checked tablecloths, paper place mats printed with the dinner menu, and dinners that don't pretend to be haute cuisine. The ravioli, spaghetti and parmigiana dishes at Buca are downright eye-talian.

The "garlic bread" needs to be more trashy Italian-American and less artistically rustic (cutting a slab was like sawing through plywood), but the salads are nice, especially a delicious heap of mixed greens, tart gorgonzola and crunchy bits of fried prosciutto. We had agreed to share two dishes because the "small" dinners feed between two and three people, but naturally, we couldn't agree on our choices. We had way too much food just so Summer could sample the ravioli blanketed with a surprisingly fresh pomodoro sauce and Marilyn could pile her plate with penne Cardinale smothered in cream sauce with chicken and artichokes. ("I heard it's what the cardinals like to eat," announced Elijah, our saintly waiter, though we weren't sure if he meant clergy or St. Louis baseball players.)

I sampled their suppers and shared my ravioli in thick meat sauce (each pasta pillow was the size and thickness of a new Coach wallet), but after the first flush of ravenous frenzy, I pooped out and asked for some take-home boxes. "But don't you want something sweet?" asked Elijah, proffering a dessert menu to Summer, who said she was full, then practically snapped it out of his hand.

The nine dessert choices cost as much as some of the smaller dinners, but then again, these are dolci designed for the Valley of the Giants, including a serving bowl filled with nearly enough tiramisu to feed the entire cast of The Sopranos. And it was excellent tiramisu, lusciously fluffy and creamy. We piled the stuff on our plates and — miracle of miracles — still had lots left over. I considered putting it in a carryout box, too, but my Catholic guilt got the best of me. Gluttony is a sin, after all, and right above Marilyn's head, I could see the image of Pope John Paul II coldly staring down at me from a commemorative china plate mounted on the wall.

Lord, I got the message.

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