Since October was Rachel’s birthday month, the group allowed her to select the next casual dining encounter, no matter where it fell on the list. She selected Buca di Beppo (#3 on our list), the Minneapolis-founded chain of Italian restaurants (it is now owned by Planet Hollywood, a Casual Encounter restaurant that is thankfully nowhere near the Twin Cities).
What we expected: A bacchanalian feast that would feed our souls and our tummies until both were uncomfortably full.
What we got: That, pretty much.
Buca’s claim to fame is that its food is all served family style, to encourage sharing and to also potentially serve as a real-life example of the Tragedy of the Commons when it comes to that one entree that everyone in the table likes best. It also makes ordering the proper quantities trickier, which I’m sure goes directly into Buca’s bottom line. No one wants to be the douche who prevents the table from an ample bounty. With a keen eye for strategy, we ended up ordering a caprese salad, a few entrees, and garlic bread.
Jenna says: Better than I remembered! Carbonara was my personal favorite. Definitely the best pasta on the casual dining list.
John says: Buca has always had fairly good food. I was impressed with the eggplant parmesan the most. I also want to give kudos to the team. Since orders at Buca are family style, having 6 people trying to order is difficult. We took care of it in only a couple of minutes. 3 small entrees, some caprese, and garlic bread. Perfect.
Jenny says: I’ve never been a huge fan of greasy Eye-talian food so this was my first foray into Buca territory. Family style? As if I’m supposed to know what that is. I guess we all have to share food. The eggplant parm was way better tasting than it looked. It heated up well too the next day. My fave was the Chicken Carbonara; it felt a little lighter tasting and had peas in it. It had me at the peas.
Andrea says: I thought the food was motherflippin’ delicious. The portions are obviously abundant – that’s their thing. The flavor was excellent. Great comfort food. Spent less than I thought I was going to, so great value too!
Rachel says: Olive Garden may say that you’re family, but Buca walks the walk with their family-style dishes. A nice way to try out a few different things. The carbonara was more like an alfredo with peas in it, but it was still delicious. The eggplant parm was my idea, so I’m glad it went over well with the crowd. The rigatoni thing was uninspired but filling, like most of the pasta I make at home. Plus, leftovers!
Jenna says: My margarita streak has come to an unfortunate end. There version was $11 and featured….wait for it….orange juice. What. The. Fudge. Who does that? Someone with no respect for a margarita, that’s for damn sure. We panic ordered a bottle of sangria, and only after receiving did we find out it was the Lisa Vanderpump brand. I don’t even know who she is [Ed. note: Neither do we, but we refuse to Google it because we have a bad feeling about her], but one of her skills IS NOT making sangria.
John says: We ended up ordering a bottle of wine (which was already on the table when we sat down) and a carafe of sangria. The sangria was pretty underwhelming. But I got drunk more quickly because I had given blood only an hour before starting drinking. So that’s monster plus.
Jenny: I was disappointed that the sangria wasn’t served in the traditional casual-dining style of carafe-filled-with-fruit. The water was good ole St. Paul crisp.
Andrea says: I had wine. The wine was cheap and a bit acidic, but hey, wine.
Rachel says: I just had water. But it seems I dodged a bullet by not getting the sangria (which is Spanish, not Italian, so I’m not sure what the group expected) [Ed. note: Snob]. I liked the suspense of seeing how drunk John would get while he was still missing a bunch of blood.
This was an interesting scenario. The crap on the walls said “hella casual,” but the slightly elevated prices and the number of celebrations happening there said “take your velvet flip flops elsewhere, Aaron.” Hard to tell if it would feel more or less formal at the Pope’s Table, where Dope Pope Francis’ plastic head spins around on a lazy susan.
Jenna says: Birthday casual.
Jenny says: Less casual than I thought it would be. That might be due to the Italian-date-night vibe I was picking up. The humongous dripping candle that appeared with the birthday cake upped the fancy points.
Andrea says: Buca is casual, and welcoming. It really does feel like you’re at a big family dinner. I *may* have even unbuttoned my pants afterward. Just kidding – I totally did.
Rachel says: I’ve always associated Buca with celebrations, which knocks it down on the casualosity scale for me. Birthdays, graduations, my mom’s 60th birthday…these are where Buca comes in. There were certainly more people there on an idle Tuesday than I’d expected, although we were far from the only birthday table there.
Jenna says: So much to look at! And all of the shit on the walls looked like it had 10 years of dust caked on, so that’s fun.
John says: This place had oodles of things on the walls. I liked that a cardboard cutout of Sofia Vegara greeted us as we walked in. Of particular note is the pope table. In the middle of a round table sits a bust of the current pope. I tried to convince that this table was permanently reserved for the pope. The team wasn’t buying it.
Jenny says: John convinced me that the pope table was always reserved for the pope. I learned later that it is not and I’m completely gullible. I enjoyed the wall-to-wall pictures of old Italian photos and movie shots. Gave me something to look at while the table argued over whatever they were arguing about. I can never keep up [Ed note: It was probably something really important, like what variety of garlic bread to get].
Andrea says: I like the fun kitschy photos on the walls. We could have been slightly farther from other people, if I had my way, but I also feel like that when I’m eating at home. Alone. So that’s just me.
Rachel says: It’s like dining inside a delightful Italian stereotype. Plus pictures of nuns playing soccer?! Count me in forever.
Our server, Ryan, was a key part of our dining experience. He was friendly without being creepy and attentive without hovering. It must be hard to be a server at a place like Buca, but he was a pro.
Jenna says: Ryan was super chill, in a good way. He dealt well with our spastic behavior. He really didn’t want to sing to Rachel for her birthday, but he did anyway, which made me happy.
John says: Ryan was a baller. Attentive but not pushy. Patient but with flair. He also said “hell yeah” a few times when I asked for something. More specifically, he brought me marinara sauce for the garlic bread. Nicely done sir.
Jenny says: He was fine. I think he needed a bit of help since there were 6 –yes 6!–other bday tables. I like that he was honest about the size of the birthday cake Rachel got for free.
Andrea says: Our server was great! Absolutely no complaints. He sang to Rachel for her birthday, but I guess that’s kind of a requirement there, so no extra points for that. He didn’t go over the top as far as service, but he was definitely more than average.
Rachel says: Our server got major points for overhearing our mumbling about marinara sauce and running to get some right away. Our passive Minnesota non-complaining wasn’t going to get in his way of excellent service! I can’t even fault him for getting the birthday singing going. The man has a job. No, I blame my dining companions for that travesty.
The fact that Buca sells any dessert at all is a testament to the sheer force of will that’s part of American eating habits. After a pile of apps and entrees, no reasonable person at a Buca is hungry enough to truly want dessert. But people must figure “Hey, I already feel full, might as well take it all the way and feel awful. One slab of cake, please.”
Jenna says: I was so full by the time it came, I don’t even remember what it tasted like.
John says: We were celebrating Rachel’s bday. Due to good planning, she was able to secure a small cake to celebrate. And yes we made the staff sing despite protestations from Rachel and Jenny. The cheesecake was good. Probably not as good as Old Country Buffet, but I doubt nothing is [Ed note: Your mom is.].
Jenny says: The cheesecake was just what you expected and needed after tubs of Italian food. Rachel’s adorable birthday cake was tasty. I’m honestly glad it was so little because we were stuffed.
Andrea says: Yeah they had cheesecake, no i didn’t eat it. I’ve seen the movie Seven, and didn’t feel like reliving the “Gluttony” scene.
Rachel: I was perceptive enough to spot that their website offers a free cake when you bring a group in for your birthday. The picture on the website was of a cake with frosting in the style of spaghetti. They must have run out of those at the central commissary (which I’m ok with, actually), so the cake I got was your average white cake with pastel sugary frosting. It was fine, if a little dry. The cheesecake, towering and topped with a tasty fruit sauce (I want to say raspberry), was also fine.
John says: The Cubs game being on the tv in the bar. 108 year curse gone!
Jenna says: Celebrating Rachel!
Jenny says: Celebrating Rachel’s birthday with a tiny cake a large, dripping candle
Rachel says: Everyone else’s glee at my embarrassing birthday song. Being savvy enough to have a coupon for free cake. More places should give me a coupon for free cake.
Least favorite part:
John says: No pope has ever visited this Buca di Beppo.
Jenna says: Writing this review while waiting in line for an hour to vote at the SLP city hall, and then having to leave even though I didn’t vote because I committed to volunteering and am going to be late. [Ed. note: Democracy in action!]
Jenny says: There was a lot going on; a little overwhelming. Don’t judge.
Rachel says: My stupid husband eating all of our leftovers, which meant that I couldn’t have them.
Coming soon: Our Casual Encounter at Red Robin!