Thursday, January 28, 2010

Italian Embassy - Line One.

Buca di Beppo
505 Foothill Boulevard
Claremont, CA 91711-3402
(909) 399-3287

Chains are interesting things really. They have sterile atmospheres, the food is usually mediocre, and the service is usually palatable. It is easy to diagnose the problem, when a recipe or service parameters are reduced into a codex, you lose something. For example, you can locate several dark spots on my brain due to fits caused by watching a barista nervously thumb through a manual as he pours ice over my espresso.

But let’s face it, Chains become “Chains” because they originally start with some successful concept. “Chicken Fajita Burritos, served in a building that looks like a factory, how original!” [Chipotle]. “Unlimited fries… blasphemy!” [Red Robin]. “Sandwiches served in a deli with wallpaper comprised of pictures of New York back in the 30s and 40s. Amazing!” [Subway].

With Buca di Beppo, you have to think about the original store and what the venture capitalist saw.

[Curtain rises]
It is a dark stormy night in some desolate red state that George W. Bush will take by 30 pts. The stage is unlit.

A well dressed man enters onto the stage. He is wet from the rain, cursing under his breath.

Man: “Why did Goldman Sachs have to send me to [insert Hick state]. Fuck, this better jack up my Christmas bonus.”

The man fidgets a little. The audience hears a slow rumble that is suppose to reflect his hunger. The stage is lit, it is a shrine to tackiness. Random statutes, rosaries, pictures of the Pope, and Italian flags are strewn all about the stage. Instead of using a color wheel, the set designer used a drag-queen’s make-up drawer for inspiration. At the center of the set, is a table … covered in plaid-plastic.

Enters Waiter carrying a very large plate of pasta: “Hello Dear Sir, how may I help you?”

Man: “Well, I scuffed my Prada’s, would you by any chance have a shoe-monger in this God forsaken [stomach grumbles] …. What is that you are holding?”

Waiter: “Why this? Oh it is merely competent pasta bolognese.”

Man: “Why, I have never seen pasta served on a big plate. And look at this place, with the exception of a million households in the Midwest, I have never seen something so tacky. Sure it might be slightly offensive to Italians and members of other religions. Wait till the partners at Goldman hears about this!”
[Curtain Falls]
Fast forward 15-20 years, my mini-high school reunion is set at Buca di Beppo. Nestled in a rather large booth, our party of five scrutinizes the menu. Oh, the possibilities are endless! Do I choose the “Spaghetti with Meat Sauce” or the “Spaghetti Marinara?”

Helene and I dissect the menu as if we were looking for the Bible Code, a sasquatch walks to our table. He does the obligatory “have you all been here … all the portions are large … blah blah ….” I inquire as to the beers that are offered. Sasquatch rattles off several talking points about Peroni and hefenweiser. Since it is Italian, why ruin the motif? I order a Peroni. Dan almost has a stroke in the waiter’s inability to pronounce hefenweiser. Five minutes later, Sasquatch returns and relays the message that “We are out of Peroni.” Dear Reader, if you question the existence of God, or your role in the general cosmos, do take heart that the Great Mover is at least humorous … how the fuck is an Italian restaurant – let alone a chain – out of Peroni? Resigned, I order a “Buca di Beppo Sangria.” Without a beat, Sasquatch asks if he can put in an order for appetizers. Dan orders “Brushetta.” Sasquatch says “Sure a large,” and walks away. Bewildered in the lack of choice, Dan looks at us, “A large it is.”

Now “Sasquatch” might be picturesque, but I really need to put brush to canvas. Think of an overweight male in his mid-late 30s. Unshaven, slightly taller than 5’8’’ with the posture of Fred Flintstone. Dear Reader, I posit a simple question, “What do waiters normally wear?” It is a simple question, you do not work at Buca de Beppo, the answer is obviously “white dress-shirt.” Sasquatch followed the norm per se; it was a white dress shirt. But alas, I will never be able to recreate the kaleidoscope. Sasquatch wore a very colorful undershirt. One that Dan and I actually spent a disproportionate amount of time attempting to decipher.

My “Buca di Beppo Sangria” arrives. And I really have no complaints. It is quite sweet. But I am a stickler with menu descriptions. To wit, it is described as “served over ice with orange slices and cherries.” I got no orange, and one cherry. Where the hell are my oranges? Now, I understand, I may look like a dick for being so inflexible. But if a corporate menu says orange slices and cherries, then I presume, a trainer and a instruction manual must have instructed the bartender “Step 5: Insert Orange Slices and Cherries (not cherry) into tacky goblet.”

Sasquatch brings the brushetta to the table. We look at it. There is an awkward silence. We stammer to our orders. But in between words like “salmon” and “marsala,” there is always a weird pause in our cadence; “what the fuck is on the table!” I googled “brushetta recipe” and the very first link brought me to the following recipe:

• 6 or 7 ripe plum tomatoes (about 1 1/2 lbs)
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
• 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
• 6-8 fresh basil leaves, chopped.
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• 1 baguette French bread or similar Italian bread
• 1/4 cup olive oil

Pretty standard, a lot of oil, garlic, tomatoes, basil. Here is Buca di Beppo’s brushetta:

• Insipid tomatoes – a lot.
• No garlic – because contrary to the menu, why stick with shtick
• Olive oil – make each serving resemble the torn hull of an oil tanker
• Two shreds of basil
• Bread – the same type that is given for free
• There is no free will, it is a large for everyone

The entries were just as inspiring. I can’t remember what John ordered, but Stacey and Dan ordered the “Chicken Marsala,” and the “Manicotti.” Helene and I ordered the “Pesto Salmon” and a large order of “Green Beans.” Stacey said she was perfectly happy with the chicken because it was her favorite dish when she used to work at the restaurant. But the other three entries are a bit more noteworthy.

Helene is one of my best friends. She was one of the first people I came out to. I was in her wedding party. Helene is one of the first people to know of any material developments in my life (see next entry). I rarely disagree with Helene. Here, there was a small split between us regarding the salmon. We both thought it was overcooked, but from tenor and tone, I actually felt that I had a more positive experience with the dish because of the pesto. Now for fair disclosure, I am ludicrously partial to pesto. Lately, I have been putting it on top of white rice for dinner. But this pesto I found to be quite interesting; it was served with entire cloves of roasted garlic. Now the garlic may have been an accident – maybe the line cook intended it for the brushetta – but it made it into the pesto, and it was really good. So delicious, that I was actually spooning it onto the complimentary bread; thus, making an appetizer better than the one ordered.

But if there was a split in opinion between the salmon entrée, I think Helene and I were quite united on the green beans. It was a salty wet mess. The beans were served in a reservoir of liquid that comprised of lemon juice, oil, and water. At the time I was thinking this was quite possibly the worst plate of beans I have ever placed into my maw, everyone in my high school turned out to be teachers. Stacey teaches our next learned generation and is now the head of an entire science department. John is a professor and teaches people how to argue and use logic. Several other compatriots also chose the noble profession of bestowing knowledge to others. If I could only teach the kitchen how to properly steam green beans.

But the night's low, was Dan and Stacey’s manicotti. There were four on the plate, and Dan had one. He artfully described it as “A cheese log.” Sasquatch came and cleared all the plates, and asked if Dan wanted to “wrap” the manicotti up. He just shook his head and waved the plate away (btw, this is the first time I met Dan – he seems like quite the diva – and I am quite a big fan). What really annoyed me, was that Sasquatch did not inquire to the lack of interest in the manicotti. To me, it appeared that it was routine to be returned untouched. In fact, that should go for the entire restaurant.

In a scale of 1 to 4 with 4 being the best.
Quality: 1.5. I had to give an extra point for the pesto.
Service: 1.
Atmosphere: 2.
Hotness of clientale: 1. My god, the Inland Empire really is the armpit of Southern California. Helene and I went to the Trader Joe’s across the parking lot, and even the gays are … if you are in your 30s stop wearing Abercrombie! An aside, Stacey did not look like she aged one bit, and John has the booming voice of a Senator.


  1. Costa's (Byron, IL) - Best Sangria EVER. Only can be ordered by the pitcher because Saro (owner) makes it per order. Sugar rimmed wine glasses and several pieces of fruit in said pitcher of Sangria. I haven't had it in a long time...I hope it's still as good as it was...

  2. Hm, now that I'm remembering that dinner again, your observation about me & the pesto was actually quite astute. I really enjoy pesto and I probably should've given this pesto sauce more consideration, but I think that because I was so turned off by the salmon, I basically abandoned the pesto thinking that it just wouldn't be enough to rescue the poor filet.

  3. Hmm I was at a Bucca di Beppo's out here a few years ago. I can't remember exactly what I got, but it wasn't too horrible, I guess lol. But hey you had fun with your fellow alums from what I've read. That counts for something.

  4. Thank you for your lie about my not having aged. I had fun even if the meal was barely palatable.