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.

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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.

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