Posted by: wrmcnutt | April 16, 2009

Restaurant Review – Buca di Beppo, Columbus – Ohio

So let me tell you about a dining experience I had not too many years ago.  I was up in Columbus, Ohio.  I was there on business, and traveling with my friend Duren.  Now, Duren is a vegetarian, and this introduces certain challenges, to whit, where do we go for dinner? At home it’s not that hard to find vegetarian options at our regular spots, but out of town it can be hard.  (The French Quarter in New Orleans, for example is a tough place to take a vegetarian on a date.  But that’s another story.)  So if we end up in a new town, our fall back is either an Italian restaurant or a Mexican restaurant.  In either case, you can get cheese and starch.  So while Duren was busily putting in uncompensated overtime, I started hunting around for Italian or Mexican food.  In my “thanks for coming to our meeting” swag bag I found a flyer for Buca di Beppo.

Now, Buca di Beppo is a chain, and those are often disappointing, but the Columbus incarnation is really an experience.  For starters, we had a little trouble finding the entrance.  I was later told that Buca di Beppo is Italian for “Joe’s Basement,” and so it would make sense that the whole of the restaurant was underground.  Eventually we found a sign for the handicapped entrance.  They share an elevator with an art gallery that has a ground floor entrance.  So in we went.  When elevator door opened, the scent of garlic rolled over us.

“Oh my,” sez my date.

“I think we’re in good hands,” I replied.

And so we rode down into Joe’s Basement.  The doors opened, and I fear that I may not have the words to describe it.  Imagine if five Italian grandmothers all decided to move in together, into a three bedroom apartment, but all of them refused to give up any of the knickknacks, tchochkes, and geegaws.  The place was visually overwhelming.  Imagine if you will, tacky, taken to so extreme a level, that it becomes stylish.  Like Elvis in his Vegas years, the tacky was embraced, then owned, and then commanded. For example, on my way to the front of the restaurant I passed the Pope John Paul II booth.  It was a huge round table, suitable for seating ten or more.  The walls were lined with 2/3 life-size tapestries of Pope John Paul II, and, to top it off, in the center of the table was a life-size bust of the Popester himself.  Oh, I’m sorry – I forgot to mention that the bust was on a lazy susan.  With a table that large, passing food across the table just isn’t practical, so there was a spinning disk for the serving platters.  As the diners you turned it to serve the food, the Pope swiveled to face each diner in turn.

But we hadn’t made it to the front of the restaurant yet.  When we got to the host’s station, we were confronted by a man from Central Casting, Hollywood, California.  It was like being greeted by the Mario Brothers.  I swear: this was what he said:

“Welcome.  You don’t know where-a the front door is?  This-a must-a be your first-a trip to Buca di Beppo.  Everyone, first time, they must-a go throughway the kitchen.’

And away we went.  Inside the kitchen, I was amazed.  I’ve worked in food service before, and I’ve cleaned a kitchen or two in my day.  But this was nothing short of amazing.  First, it was like an operating theater in there.  A couple of the staff had a smudge or two on their aprons, but all the counters, work surfaces, and the floor were utterly spotless.  Even the concrete gleamed.  The second thing I noticed was that when the kitchen team looked up to greet us, they smiled and waved, and seemed sincerely glad that we were stopping by.  Then the host gestured behind us and said, “This is-a the kitchen table.  Next time-a you come, you reserve-a the Kitchen Table, and-a you sit back here and watch-a the magic happen.”  And it was a booth, also utterly spotless.  But it was already reserved, and we were only two, so the JP II booth wasn’t for us, either.

No, we were seated in the Gina Lollabrigida alcove.  It was utterly and completely papered with photos, posters, and memorabilia from Ms. Lollabrigida’s career.  Honestly, I’ve never seen that many examples of Italian pulchritude in one place. There was barely a square inch of wall showing.

Once we were seated, we were very promptly greeted by our waiter.  (No – not from Central Casting this time.)  He was the most entertaining waiter I’ve ever had.  Alas, we were his final customers on his final night.  He was leaving the business to head to medical school after his shift. He knew every dish on the menu, and was well able to advise us, with just a few questions.  And he was able to warn us as well.

Our initial view of the menu found it to be a little pricey, but not too bad.  Then we were warned by our waiter.  You see, Buca di Beppo is a family style Italian restaurant.  That means they expect you to bring your entire Italian family when dining out.  All entrees serve four. If we’d ordered on our initial impulses, we’d have gotten enough food for eight. Even splitting one entrée, we’d have food enough for four, and besides, I was in the mood for dead animal flesh.  And she’s a vegetarian.

Lucky for us, as our waiter informed us, the Food Scientists at Buca di Beppo had been working round the clock on this problem, and they’d recently made a breakthrough.  They called it, the double portion. Oh, senior management was skeptical, but they were willing to give it a try. If you ordered the experimental double portion, you only got enough food for two people. Two active adults.  So she ordered the cannelloni, and I ordered ravioli with meat sauce.  And here’s where it got truly entertaining.

As I have mentioned (twice), my companion was a vegetarian.  When her cannelloni came out, it was pasta shells stuffed with meat in a marinara sauce.  We, of course, immediately advised the waiter that this was not what we expected.  He said, “No problem,” and immediately vanished into the depths of the restaurant. He returned with a senior manager, who very gently, very politely informed us that cannelloni is made with meat, not cheese, and that whoever had taught us that, had taught us wrong. (Note: I don’t wish to debate this here.  I merely report what happened. ) But they were perfectly willing to strike the inedible cannelloni from our bill and replace it with what she wanted.  The waiter went trotting off to place the order for her, while the manager stayed at our table for five minutes to apologize.  He apologized for bringing us exactly what we ordered. What was he supposed to have done?  Read her mind?  His duty done, or so we thought, he headed back into the crowd.  He emerged again in less than a minute with a large salad bowl of angel hair pasta garnished with fresh grated parmesan cheese garlic mashed potatos to tide her over until her entrée was ready.  She languished all of seven minutes before the replacement entrée came out. Of course, they left the cannelloni in case I was interesting in trying it.  This left us with enough entrées for six active adults, plus two huge salads and enough garlic rolls to build a small outbuilding.  And all for under $45.00.

I think I’ve made clear that the food was supplied in massive quantities.  But quantity isn’t everything, and the quality of the food at Buca de Beppo deserves some notice.  The pasta was firm, without being undercooked, the cheeses were fresh and flavorful, and the salad crisp, firm, and cold.  I like strong flavors and I like Italian food, so I truly enjoyed my meal.  Oh, and that brings me to the dessert.  Specifically the tiramisu.  The single order of tiramisu we got was roughly the size of half of a soccer ball.  I’ve never been much of a chocolate guy, so I was quite surprised when I bit into my first spoonful.  It was rich, smooth, creamy, flavorful, and not overpoweringly chocolate.  We barely ate a third of it, and my companion declared that it was coming back to the hotel with us.  We snacked on it again that night, but over half of it remained.  We forgot it when loading the car. When we returned to the room, it had vanished. Clearly, housekeeping had  a chocolate habit.

Eventually the time came that I had to visit the necessarium. You’ve got to love any restaurant where the directions to the men’s room include the phrase “turn left at the Frank Sinatra Shrine.”  The décor in the men’s room almost defied words.  The first thing that struck my eyes was the solid chair-rail of pictures around the room, right at eye level.  There must have been fifty photographs of running water.  Garden hoses, the Trevi fountain in Rome, erupting geysers, little boys peeing off of bridges (shown only from the back of course), creeks, rivers, waterfalls, and water fountains all immediately assaulted the eye.  I must confess, it did add a little urgency to my errand.  The other point of décor worthy of mention was the seating.  This particular necessarium had seating for one and standing room for two.  The single stall was decorated with a hand-painted mural.  Of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  Again – tacky has been embraced, owned, and then commanded.

I give the Columbus Ohio Buca de Beppo:

Five of Five Pints for Atmosphere

Four of Five Pints for Service

Three Point Five Pints for Taste

That comes to an average of Four Pints, making it one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had.

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  1. I love your write up on the restaurant, it’s hillarious. Hahaha, that just made my day. Thanks man =)
    Great restaurant experience though, eh? I don’t know if I’ll ever come around to Ohio but if I do I will sure check out Buca di Beppo

  2. Road trip to Columbus, OH anyone? I GOTTA see this place.

  3. Hang on! there is one in Atlanta! Alpharetta to be exact.

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