The first Buca di Beppo (the name loosely translates as "Joe's basement") was built in a basement. According to Steve Roberts, the 37-year-old director of architectural design and decor for the chain of 54 "immigrant Italian" restaurants, basements are still a favorite location, even if the implementation can be a nightmare. At the Plaza, for example, the maze of rooms has no air-conditioning until all the construction is done, so Roberts and his crew are painting and decorating while giant fans blast hot air around them.
"But that's nothing," says the Yale-educated Roberts (whose father, Phil, created the concept and serves on the company's board of directors). "When we were getting the Sacramento location open, there was no electricity, so we did all our work in the dark, with generators and handheld lights."
"And it was 110 degrees," adds artist Steve Cosentino. Cosentino, a native of New York's Hell's Kitchen, looks relatively cool in the sultry unfinished dining room, working on a sequence of paintings depicting a bald man who gets fatter, sloppier and more naked. Roberts plans to hang the series in the hallway leading from the parking garage to the underground restaurant.
Cosentino's other big project is a mural at the restaurant's 47th Street entrance: a view from a Roman villa, complete with a nearly nude Roman centurion, ancient temples and, in the background, an erupting volcano. Thomas Hart Benton, it ain't.
Cosentino and fellow painter Laurienne Thomas are part of the ten-person crew that accompanies Roberts for each restaurant installation; a crew that includes Constance Schey, the "kitsch wrangler," who provides vast amounts of geegaws -- from porcelain poodles to fabric flowers, Lucite grapes and vintage bottles of Varsity Dandruff Remover -- to be glued or bolted into place. ("People do try to steal some of the stuff," says Roberts.) During Schey's Kansas City visit, she hit lots of garage sales, thrift stores and flea markets for stuff to haul off to the company's Minneapolis warehouse, where Roberts picks through it in his quest to create the tackiest possible decor for each restaurant. One of Schey's major finds, hung prominently at the Plaza restaurant, is a gaudy red velvet painting with a plaster bridge "and lots of little tiny electric lights," Roberts gloats.
For the restaurant's religious-themed rooms, such as the "pope room" and the "cardinal room," Roberts makes annual pilgrimages to Italy, where he hits "all the touristy gift shops between the Vatican and St. Peters" and brings back imitation "tapestries" of Pope John XXIII, commemorative prints of the medieval pontiffs and dozens of other wildly vulgar keepsakes to mount on the walls.
One of the dining rooms has a vaulted ceiling pasted with posters created from blown-up reproductions of 1950s LP covers that Roberts unearthed in a New York record store, such long-forgotten hi-fi treasures as Mandolino Italiano, Personality Aplenty! and Down at Paeone's Place.
"They're romantic; they're schmaltzy," Roberts says, grinning. "They're great!"