Italian overdose

Buca di Beppo

1249 Howe Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95825

(916) 922-6649

I’m embarrassed to admit it: Buca di Beppo blew my mind. That’s not supposed to happen. I am, after all, a trained professional. Buca di Beppo is a small, Minneapolis-based chain of Italian restaurants built on the Hard Rock Café template: Cram as much Italian memorabilia as possible into the old Security Pacific bank building at the corner of Hurley and Howe, start serving at least half-decent food, and they will come. Call it (with a nod and a wink to Sacramento’s large Italian community) the Hard Wop Café, the sort of demographically targeted concept restaurant a seasoned food critic such has myself should have no trouble seeing through.

But I hadn’t counted on the Pope’s head in a Plexiglas box.

The thing is, I probably should have. The staff of Buca di Beppo, from the hostess right through to the head chef, had done their best to prepare me for the shock. It began as soon as we entered the place. The hostess towed us, Virgil-like, through the kitchen, introducing us to the cooks, pointing to large plates loaded with food and giant wheels of bread, explaining that all of Buca di Beppo’s food is served “family style,” in portions large enough to feed six to eight people. My dining companion and I gave her a startled glance, but she assured us that with a little selective ordering, the pair of us would get along just fine.

She then led us to our table through a garish, kaleidoscopic maze of all things Italian: posters of Sophia Loren, a neon blue copy of Michelangelo’s “David,” a shrine to Frank Sinatra, logos for every product ever made in Italy. Nothing was left out—even the men’s room had a mural of Pompeii on one of the stalls. As our hostess seated us, she pointed behind us to “Cardinal’s Corner,” a section of the restaurant dedicated to the Catholic clergy, and immediately adjacent to that, hidden behind a wall, the “Pope’s Room,” available by reservation only.

It was a bit claustrophobic and overwhelming, taking all of this in at once, but concentrating on the wall-mounted menu brought the evening back into focus. We decided to split a small mixed green salad with prosciutto and Gorgonzola, the chicken Marsala entrée, and even though the waitress warned us it was way too much food for two people, we ordered two sides, mashed new potatoes and green beans. Then I casually strolled over to the Pope’s Room. What I saw there will live with me till the day I die:

A candelabra chandelier over a dark, round wooden table. A stack of bread plates on the right, wine lists on the left, and in between, in a Plexiglas box, a life-like bust of Pope Paul II. What did it all mean? Returning to my table, I felt disturbed, yet oddly exhilarated.

By then, the small salad, big enough to feed four, had arrived. Nothing fancy, but a lot of green leaves and no brown ones. The salad and the aforementioned 14-inch wheel of bread, slathered with butter and sprinkled with razor-thin slices of garlic, pretty much finished us off, appetite-wise.

Which was a shame, because the chicken Marsala was dynamite; three tender, skinless half-breasts smothered with sliced, fresh mushrooms and a thick, caramelized wine sauce that had a slight hint of molasses. The mashed new potatoes were smooth and creamy, and came in a bowl big enough to feed an army; the green beans, served in an equally large portion, were snappy.

For dessert, we split an enormous slab of real spumoni ice cream in chocolate sauce, which we finished off as the doggie bags piled up around us.

I’ll admit to being torn trying to figure out how to rate Buca di Beppo. It’s so blatantly over-the-top, I considered one star. Then I thought, heck, they probably deserve four stars, just for having the guts to exhibit the Pope’s head in a Plexiglas box. I settled for dinging the place a half-star for serving such brackish house wine. Other than that, Buca di Beppo provided a memorable experience that everyone should enjoy at least once.