Recently I was invited to have dinner at Buca di Beppo at the Village Hotel in Newcastle, the first of five UK locations in a growing chain of American-Italian restaurants which have been popular Stateside since 1993. Along with four other local food-loving bloggers, I was invited to review the Buca experience at the Godfather table - a large, lazy Susan-style family table made for sharing several courses at once. We were hosted by Andrew and Karen from the Village Hotel, both lovely dinner companions who kept the food generous and the conversation rolling.
I have to admit, I was a bit nervous about reviewing a chain restaurant, especially an American-Italian one. My experience with eateries offering this type of fare has been inevitably disappointing - any place I once liked eventually turned to cheaper ingredients, and that's never a good thing. Or they just start off that way!
Back to Buca. Upon entering, I found the scenery very familiar. A 'theme' trend has emerged in the past few years with Am/Italian chains looking to create a homey, nostalgic atmosphere by covering the walls in old black and white family photos (which may or may not include a lady's bare bum and a baby giving the finger.) There's the fedorad Mafioso-types and Brando at the Godfather table, and of course, the Rat Pack with extra helpings of Frank Sinatra, who serenades us over the sound system. You can dine in the Sophia Loren room if you like your Italian icons more sultry, and you don't mind eating in the presence of someone infinitely better looking than you.
The good news is Buca doesn't need a gimmick. The food is good. After a round of cocktails - I tried the Wildberry Mojito which was too sweet for me, but I found the Italian Margarita to be a perfect blend of sweet and sour creaminess - we ordered enough food to feed all of us plus most of the people on the walls. The platters and bowls began to arrive - Buca offers small and large options for their entrees, plus a set family-style menu for eight or more. I tried a bit of everything, starting with the Stuffed Mushrooms which were really tasty with prosciutto, cheese, fresh sage and rosemary. I could have eaten the entire platter myself if left alone with it. The Bruschetta Florentine was typical OTT American in that it was loaded up and heavy with tons of cheese, topped with spinach, tomatoes and garlic, the latter which Andrew tells me is poached for rubbing on the garlic breads.
The Baked Rigatoni with spicy Italian sausage and dollops of ricotta (which I love), was recommended beforehand by Adele who coordinated the gathering, yet somehow it was one of the few dishes that didn't make it onto the table! We had platters of Meatball Lasagna, Spicy Chicken Rigatoni, Chicken Parmigania, pizza, Linguini Frutti di Mare, their giant half-pound meatball with their homemade marinara sauce as well as a fresh Caprese salad which is a favourite of mine, and steamed green beans and broccoli - yes, I did eat my veggies and they were nicely cooked and seasoned. All of the aforementioned dishes were lovely, many made with Buca's special homemade tomato sauce. The standout entree for me was the Saltimbocca veal (a meat I usually don't order because I don't eat children), served with fresh sage and prosciutto, artichoke hearts and lemon butter sauce with capers. I was impressed by how tender the meat was, and the sauce was flavourful and fresh. The veal was perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious - it sent my values straight out the window. The garlic mash and roast potatoes, which are usually a 'phoned in' dish (Canadian translation - minimal effort to get it done) each had a gorgeous, smooth texture and were perfectly seasoned, well above the standard starchy fare. Normally I'd not think twice about potatoes when Italian is on the table, but I'd make a point of ordering them again.
Buca could serve food at half the quality and still do good business as exemplified by their competitors, but they choose to use high quality ingredients and cook the food properly; it's clear the food is the focus. The prices are reasonable and competitive, and the sharing options allow you to indulge in a few favourites with family or friends, rather than having to decide on just one.
But we're not finished yet, there was dessert. Oh boy was there dessert! An imposing presence on the table, the Dolce Platter (£19.95) which could easily satisfy 10 people, was set in front of us. There was with the hugest piece of chocolate cake I've ever seen, a massive bowl of Tiramisu, a big slice of cheesecake and a pile of Chocolate Chip Cannolis. We sat there wide-eyed and stunned, and I tried to summon Caligula to help us out with it all but he didn't materialise. I was full - ordering a cappucino didn't help - but I had to try a bit of each. To my delight and the relief of my stomach, the cake was espresso chocolate, and rather than being super rich and sweet, it had a delicate, dark flavour which was the perfect balance to the feast. (I didn't partake in the chocolate Sambuca sauce beneath the cake because of an overindulgence in Sambuca when I was 21 that turned me off the taste of anise for life.) Tiramisu is too much for me to handle at any time so I tasted a tiny bit of the creamy mascarpone, and then went in for the cheesecake. It looked like typical restaurant cheesecake with a berry sauce, but to my surprise it was just gorgeous. The texture was velvety and the raspberrry and hazelnut sauce wasn't the usual sickly sweet, artificial-tasting topping that I would normally ask to be left off; it was fresh and light and an asset to the cake. By now I was in danger of having to be rolled out of the place so I stopped short of the cannoli. But one did come home with me in two doggie bags full of leftovers - one dinner, one dessert - which each of us got to take home, and my daughter devoured it. (Yes, I love restaurant leftovers and I'm not ashamed to admit it!) I must mention that due to the quantity of the desserts they lasted about three days in the fridge, we nibbled a bit each day, and at the end the cake was still moist and hadn't dried out at all. Lovely!
Thank you to Andrew, Karen and Adele for a lovely time and the introduction to Buca di Beppo and the Village Hotel. I'll be returning with my family, all of us with empty stomachs, and I will definitely be ordering the Baked Rigatoni!
Buca di Beppo is owned by Planet Hollywood International Inc. and has locations within the Village Hotel in Newcastle at Cobalt Business Park, as well as in Wirral, Blackpool Heron's Reach, Swindon and Watford Eltree.
Photos © The Swelle Life