Similarly, the Minneapolis-based Buca di Beppo chain recreates the distinctive flavors and campy décor of a 1950s-style restaurant in the "Little Italy" neighborhood of some big city (think New York, Chicago or San Francisco). It's the Disney version of a neighborhood Italian joint, which is why the spacious bathrooms are spotless and the knickknacks are livelier than the food. And it's why most -- but not all -- Buca di Beppo restaurants are built in the suburbs rather than in urban neighborhoods.
The first Buca to open in Kansas City was off I-35 in Lenexa. "Little Italy" it ain't. It isn't even a neighborhood. It might have been interesting if the chain had thought to put one of its boisterous restaurants in the brick building that once housed the old Jennie's, in the neighborhood that really was Kansas City's "Little Italy": the old North End. But the Plaza, which isn't just a tourist mecca but the closest thing Kansas City has to a traditional "downtown" (stores, restaurants, hotels, banks, office towers), must have seemed a more lucrative spot for a restaurant that targets big groups of people. Buca di Beppo is less a restaurant than a mini convention center, with booths as large as double-wides and "small" plates of food designed to feed four.
Real versions of what Buca di Beppo tries to be still exist around town. Italian Gardens, Anthony's, Villa Capri and Cascone's have fewer hilariously kitschy props, flea-market treasures and Catholic icons on the walls (the latter is way overdone at Buca di Beppo, which non-Papists might find uproarious, but devout Catholics, tiresome), but their charm is genuine, not contrived. As for Buca di Beppo's food, well, that's another contrivance.
As the grandson of Italian immigrants, I find the Italian-American food served at Buca di Beppo to be hearty comfort food -- but surprisingly boring. My dining companions nearly always disagreed with me, praising the restaurant's creations like Eva Peron genuflecting before the Pope. But they always added a caveat, such as this one from my friend Shea: "It's great! I liked everything I tasted! But I'll never come back. I mean, this is where you come with a bunch of friends to hang out, not have a quiet dinner."
My most abrasive friend, John, said the food was better than he'd anticipated. "When I walked in and saw the décor, I expected the worst. But it's decent Italian-American food with no pretentions. It is what it is: the Italian version of the Cheesecake Factory."
And Shea's husband, Barry, wanted me to add that "the house Chianti is very weak, lifeless. No body."
I felt the same way about many of the dishes I sampled, all of which arrived at the table as gargantuan, visually sumptuous creations. Yet even a dish as ubiquitous as a mixed-greens salad was so bland that we begged for extra oil and balsamic vinegar to try to animate it. The bruschetta appetizer was a pile of chopped tomatoes, olive oil and far too little basil spooned onto wedges of inch-thick dry bread. It looked good enough to frame, but in the taste department it was all show. For me, one bite was plenty and basta -- enough!