Buca di Beppo (translation: “Joe’s Basement”) is proud of its procedures. Take the meatballs: They are, frankly, things of beauty, and everyone from the hosts to the buspeople is quick to point out why. The half-pound spheres simmer all day in marinara, I’m told, again and again; they never suffer the indignity of a moisture-robbing broiler. According to my bartender one night, Buca’s meatballs are a never-ending task. “We’ve basically got guys cooking the things around the clock,” he claims.
I suppose it’s possible that the guy is simply spewing misleading corporate rhetoric, although I’m not given any reason to believe that he’s lying—you could make a rich soup from the juices that the meatballs ooze. More plausible is that Buca’s employees are made to drink some suspicious Kool-Aid before they’re ever given access to a uniform. Either that, or, as one friend suggests, the staff’s been given stock options. How else can one account for their zeal?
When it’s full, which is often, the dining room sounds like a trading floor as waiters shamelessly shout the arrival of dishes: “Mussels marinara!” “Pizza bianca!” In the waiting area, a woman quietly ponders whether she wants to wait a half-hour for one of Buca’s outside tables or go someplace else. Hoping to persuade her, one of the three hosts starts a chant: “Stay. Stay. Stay…” One night, I’m upbraided by a server who takes issue with my use of the word “chain,” which is what Buca is. “We don’t like the C-word,” he explains.
Semantics, semantics, semantics. If Buca’s new Dupont Circle location is, as its employees insist, a member of a “family of restaurants,” it’s one that looks curiously identical to its sisters and brothers.
The restaurant’s design, much like the restaurant as a whole, is shtick-addled. Taking its cue from scores of other C-word restaurants, Buca is a museum of cheap knickknacks, most of them photographs of antique Italy, some of which are curious enough to warrant a second look. (There’s one above the urinal of a kid pissing on what I presume is his sleeping mother.) The layout is so labyrinthine that getting to the bathroom from some tables requires walking through the kitchen, and the place is lined with booths that are roomier than a lot of Manhattan studio apartments.
On the whole, the place feels as if it were built from a kit. But it’s definitely quirky—charmingly so in some ways, annoyingly so in others. Buca’s food is correctly described as “Italian immigrant cuisine,” which, loosely speaking, is the kind of stuff Americans with nongourmet parents grew up on. But the restaurant’s idiosyncrasies disguise a rigid adherence to institutional policy, not to mention the tried and true. Dishes that stray from the norm fall laughably flat; the veal marsala’s sauce, for instance—”Ours is different, very sweet,” gushes one waiter—literally tastes like pancake syrup. And the staffers can be downright weird in their demands. Our waitress one night explains that the menus are printed on walls to encourage patrons to get up and mingle with others as they look to see what they’ll order. It’s only after we point out that one person in our party has a broken leg that she relents and brings us a menu to peruse tableside.
There’s no doubt that Buca would get laughed right out of an Italian-food town like Philly or New York, but in the context of D.C., which is woefully bereft of red-sauce joints, there’s something deeply refreshing about it. Indeed, its food can be dull to a fault—the focaccia wouldn’t be out of place packing a box filled with breakable china, and one heaping order of spaghetti comes with so little meat sauce that I wonder if we were supposed to bring our own—but much of it tastes trucked-in from an Italian mothers’ bake-off.
The food’s not shocking, just eminently edible. The crisp and tender calamari is escorted by a tempting tomato goop that falls somewhere between marinara and salsa. Roasted peppers are appropriately slimy and laden with garlic and anchovies. The kitchen does particularly well with country-style dishes like chicken vesuvio, an oregano-scented platter of chicken, white beans, potatoes, and sausage. Pizzas are roughly oval-shaped, crisp, and available with the kinds of meat (prosciutto, sliced-not-crumbled sausage), vegetables (escarole, caramelized onions), and cheese (provolone, gorgonzola) that you’d expect to find in Little Italy. The house salad is basically a mountain of antipasti that, like most dishes on the menu, could feed four. One night, a friend on a brief sabbatical from his vegetarian wife leaves purple with joy having engorged himself on spicy sausage, tomatoes tossed with salami and mortadella, and bechamel-rich lasagna.
And I mean engorge. Buca’s portions, from the glasses of wine, which are served in tumblers, to the spumoni, which basically comes by the bucket, are so heaping they’re funny. One appetizer, one salad, a half-order of pasta, and a full order of chicken parmigiana could easily feed a group of nine. The bill for such a feast, including tip and more than enough wine, would come to around $100. Of course, the emotional price paid for enduring Buca’s significant C-word preciousness varies from person to person. So I’ll let you do the math.
Buca di Beppo, 1825 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 232-8466.
Though technically a chain itself, Teaism plays the chain game by rules different from those of its big-league brethren. The foodies that run the Asian-accented teahouses would likely cringe at any portion that was other than dainty, and both the Dupont flagship and the new location by the White House are so cleanly spare that a surgeon could probably set up shop on one of the tables. The new Teaism shows signs of its youth—food’s still served on plates labeled Vox Populi, the space’s former occupant, and the staff hasn’t yet figured out how to make itself useful in the self-service environment. But fans of the food at the original should be delighted to find ginger scones and cold, luscious, tea-cured salmon available within walking distance from half the offices downtown. One reader’s been ordering bento boxes on a “bi-daily” basis despite the fact that she has yet to spot any celebs on the outside patio. “The tea’s that good,” she says.
Teaism, 800 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 835-2233. —Brett Anderson
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