Hot items to watch for in 2009’s trendy restaurant kitchens—fennel pollen, anyone? Organic, single-estate chocolate?—drive nervous foodies to scan menus that maintain their status in the avant-garde. Excuse me, but don’t we have somewhat more important things to occupy our minds, like bread lines and bank foreclosures? This is the winter of our discontent, as some guy noted back in England, so let’s crawl back to the culinary womb. Forget the fennel pollen; bring on the comfort food! Where’s the red sauce when we need it?
At Buca di Beppo, where it never went away. The antithesis of hoity-toity, the friendly dive serves the same hearty, unpretentious fare as when it opened back in 1993 in a below-street speakeasy site in downtown Minneapolis. Just knock three times and tell ’em Joe sent you.
High-class it ain’t. Think, instead, high kitsch: plastic grapevines, checkered tablecloths, straw-covered bottles of bathtub Chianti, Perry Como singing “That’s Amore,” a portrait of the Pope painted on a dinner plate (and those are just the tasteful touches). Michelangelo’s naked Adam is portrayed, Sistine-style, checking in with his Creator on a cell phone. Or maybe he’s just ordering take-out: pizza as big as a bathmat, tubs of lasagna to fuel a football team, and other stereotypical classics, like spaghetti and meatballs (invented in Chicago, by the way, not Sicily—but who’s counting?).
Yet the menu hasn’t been frozen in a time ruled by Chef Boy-ar-dee. Even the timid palates of us Minnesota Scandos have grown beyond that. And so has Buca’s creative kitchen. But not to worry: It’s still comfort food extraordinaire.
Such as a couple of newly-added pastas, the yin and yang of their breed. First to arrive was a mildly, delectably fiery Shrimp Fra Diavolo. Its sweet, gorgeous shellfish were sautéed with garlic and a pinch of chili pepper, then swirled into a rosy sauce, light, clinging, tinted with a hint of tomato and joined by plentiful tubes of penne. Luscious, really luscious.
In contrast, the also-new Penne Basilica presented a richer, denser cream sauce stirred with basil pesto, in which meaty chunks of chicken breast and broccoli florets tangled with the pasta—another winning choice among the 15 or so on offer (more, if you count the baked pastas, such as manicotti). Each is available (as is everything on the menu) in two sizes: small, a euphemism for a platter Grandma would use to feed 25, and large, blanketing the zip code.
To get into training, we began our feast with a considerably lighter salad, composed of spinach leaves and quartered tomatoes gently sautéed in oil, then lightly tempered with balsamic vinegar. Next, bits of spiced pecans, savory indeed, joined nuggets of tart and creamy goat cheese to bring the dish together. The red onions in the meld proved a sharp and unwelcome addition, but hey, don’t be shy—pick ’em out.
Or choose the apple-gorgonzola number, composed of Granny Smiths, spiced walnuts, dried cranberries and that premier blue cheese tossed with greens and vinaigrette. Or the premier Caesar.
Secondi follow, if you’re not already on the floor waiting for the paramedics.
These entrées, oddly enough, are priced the same as the pastas, which ring up bigger margins, I’m certain: small from $10 to $24, large from $17 to $36. Either way, you’ll go home clutching doggie bags.
Among the new entrées, we chose the Chianti-braised short ribs (ribs from a dinosaur farm, by the looks of it)—tender, fall-off-your-fork meat slowly cooked in red wine and tomato that coats them in a rich, savory sauce, another winner—especially when paired with a helping of Buca’s skin-on garlic mashed potatoes (you needed more carbs, right?). Or heed the health police and summon the green beans or broccoli instead. The entrée list also includes chicken—Marsala, saltimbocca style, Parmigiana, or stuffed with prosciutto—as well as veal or eggplant Parmigiana and, for lightweights, salmon in pesto cream with pine nuts and sundried tomatoes.
Actually, I think the bouncers at the door would bar the diet cops from entering, for no warrants for our arrest appeared when we ordered a slice of the housemade cheesecake for dessert—unnecessary, unneeded, but devoured within a millisecond amid our dueling forks. This one’s a true New York style, but a tad lighter than the gummy mass proffered by less adept kitchens. Play around with your gelato if you like; I’m sticking with this slice.
What to drink? Is the Pope Catholic? Chianti in one of those old-timey, bulbous bottles wrapped in straw, of course.