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Photograph by Paul Myers

The Food You've Prayed For: Even the pope can't get enough of Buca.

Da Bigga Di Beppo

Proving that over-the-top dining has not yet worn out its welcome, Buca di Beppo gives 'big' a bigger name

By Christina Waters

PART NEAPOLITAN grotto, part Vegas act, Buca di Beppo is all entertainment. Family-style Italian dining is big at Beppo. Very big. The entire concept at this trattoria is so focused on the multiple that couples might feel engulfed by the décor dazzle, the sassy menu, the wraparound photo exhibit, the Christmas lights, the red drapery, the acres of bric-a-brac, the operatic chandeliers and the boisterous packs of roving waiters.

This many-fingered approach seems to be serving Buca di Beppo well in the current culinary downturn. Specializing in SUV-sized portions (each dish is designed to feed three or more hungry humans), Beppo does nothing in a small way. You wanna try the evening-special appetizer of fresh mozzarella with marinara? You got it! But it's gonna be big enough for Tony Soprano's extended family when it arrives: eight or so fist-sized balls of mozzarella rolled in crumbs, pan-fried and joined by a juicy altar of crimson marinara ($9.95).

Decked out in its Madonna-meets-the-Mafia finery, Buca likes to claim a southern Italian lineage. Hence we were disappointed that after we pinned down a slick red booth and admired the splashy place mats, the Sicilian syrah we desired was out of stock, despite the best efforts of our two adorable waitboys. We pacified our passion for vino rosso with a nice Antinori Santa Cristina Chianti ($24.95) and toasted "Buon appetito!" as loudly as possible.

You pour your own wine here, and you serve yourself from giant platters using spoons the size of a Volkswagen bucket seat. But whaddaya expect from a place that calls its pizza "bathmat-sized"? Finesse is not the point here--the point is huge, hearty helpings glowing with garlic.

Marlow and I succumbed to eggplant parmigiana ($17.95)--enough to make Rosemary Clooney mambo Italiano--and a colossal helping of one of the restaurant's trademarked (that's right, trademarked) specialties: Buca Chicken Vesuvio(TM) ($20.95). This happy restaurant, realizing that sometimes you just don't have an entire extended family joining you for dinner, has designed a special prix fixe package per due. Problemo: I didn't see any entree I wanted to pair with a pasta on the limited choices.

OK, so theme dining rules here. But the food, let me quickly add, is way better than it has to be. I mean with this much decorator T&A, you could be chewing cardboard with your glass of Chianti and you'd still start singing along with ol' Blue Eyes. But the eggplant dish, layered with lots of gooey cheese and nicely baked eggplant, was delicious. And the thick marinara sauce covering the St. Peter's-sized portion was stupendous.

My chicken creation relied heavily on the requisite handfuls of garlic and onions for its effect, in addition to succulent white beans, fat chunks of very spicy Italian sausage, four chicken breasts and roasted potatoes the size of soccer balls. Representing the green-vegetable side of the gastro-galaxy was a forest of broccoli intermixed with all of the above in a Vesuvian eruption of flavors. Was it all a big boisterous mess? Was it good? Yes and yes.

After a flourish of packing up enough leftovers to service the Sicilian Air Force, we pointed our way toward one of Beppo's authentic Italian pastries. Marlow insisted on chocolate cannoli ($8.95), and I was too stuffed to argue. A trio of seriously creamy ricotta-stuffed pastry tubes, dipped in eerie green candied pistachios and floating on a Mediterranean Sea of chocolate sauce made us feel as lusty as Sophia Loren (whose photo hangs near those of the pope and Al Pacino in the celebrity-intensive Beppo gallery).

Buca di Beppo: it feeds a village.

Buca di Beppo
Address: 1875 S. Bascom Ave., San Jose; 643 Emerson St., Palo Alto
Phone: 408.377.7722; 650.329.0665
Hours: Dinner from 5pm nightly; from noon Sat-Sun
Cuisine: Italian family-style

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From the February 20-26, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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