Up until six months ago, my summary judgment of Buca di Beppo was: "They're good." This edict was the result of two dinners and a takeout lunch, during all of which I enjoyed good service, decent pasta and salad, but ultimately, nothing to write home about. Then in February 2014, I was tickled pink (appropriately) on Valentine's Day when I tried the restaurant's holiday special, a heart-shaped lasagna with meticulously structured layers of perfectly cooked pasta, aromatic sauce, and hard and soft cheeses. Creative, and, dare I say, very good.
An email announcing the launch of three interesting seasonal dishes was thus well-timed, not only because Buca di Beppo was on my general radar but also because plans were in the works for an alfresco meal with multiple neighbors....and I only had time to take, rather, than cook out.
What's a socially motivated but culinarily-disinclined girl to do? 1. Get Catering, 2. Lie, and 3. Admit you lied after a child attendee to your party observes your delicious homemade Italian-American food came with Buca di Beppo brand plastic ware and packets of basil seeds (more on that later).
Buca di Beppo's non-limited-time-only staples such as the caprese salad are satisfying and easily distinguishable from other editions peddled by Italian-American restaurants across House by their use of blood-red tomatoes whose flavor isn't sullied by excess water (indicative of under-ripeness) and buffalo mozzarella, which you know is fresh because it emits just a little milky sweat. This and the terrifically crunchy, sweet, earthy apple gorgonzola salad were wonderful precursors to the main event: the stunning summer specials.
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The verdict on which of Buca's seasonal dishes was the best was close, but guests ultimately ruled 5-4 in favor of the chitarra al pomodoro for its palpable spice and elegant presentation. It's not just the sauce, with eye-rolling umami notes thanks to the combination of roasted tomatoes and garlic, that elevates what might otherwise be dismissed as spaghetti with red gravy. Chitarra means "guitar" in Italian and the pasta is so named because of its sturdy, porous shape resemble the strings of this instrument. This porosity enables the noodles, made from egg and semolina flour, to absorb surrounding sauce better than regular spaghetti.
The dissent voted instead for the garden pappardelle, whose wide, winding noodles were dressed in a basil cream sauce and tossed with carrots, zucchini, and sauteed shrimp. Yet another salient example of how shellfish and dairy can be match made in heaven (except in an Orthodox kitchen), for the oceanic salt of the prawn well complements the milder, fatty cream. A slight crunch from the root vegetables contrasted nicely with the soft flesh of the shrimp and al dente noodles. Finally, in terms of presentation, no dish was more elegant in its pastel hues.
Personal bias toward red rather than white pizza leads me to rank the pancetta and arugla pizza third, though let it be known that "last place" in this case still means it's really good. First of all, Buca di Beppo must have revamped its dough recipe, as this crust had a much better texture and earthy grain flavor than others on pizza of theirs I've tried in the past. On this solid base is a substantial dusting of mozzarella and provolone, slices of pancetta, sausage, garlic, and arugula. Tempering what might have been overwhelming savoriness is a slightly sweet, acidic balsamic glaze. And though this list of ingredients might suggest the pizza is a heavy confection, somehow the balance of vegetable, dairy, and meat components makes for a relatively light pie. In other words, you can easily have three slices and won't have to wait half an hour to go swimming.
Oh, and the basil seeds? Buca di Beppo has selected basil as the official Italian herb of summer and are giving patrons free packets of seeds so they can grow their own plants. So, in theory, you can then cook your own food next time for that neighborhood gathering. Or just order Buca again, throw your basil leaves on top, and call it homemade.