I just ate at Buca di Beppo for the first time after never eating pasta growing up. Here's what I thought.
Buca di Beppo is a cult-favorite Italian-American restaurant chain. Growing up in a Chinese-American household, the only spaghetti I encountered was at friends' houses or on TV. As an adult, I finally learned about Buca di Beppo and my red-sauce dreams were reignited. My first meal there was full of highs and lows, but it inspired me to continue my search for the perfect plate of spaghetti. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
If Hollywood is to be believed, Italian-American restaurants are where life happens. As a kid watching these movies, I could almost smell the red sauce through the screen. I'd had spaghetti once at my neighbor's house, and it was everything my Chinese immigrant mom never let me eat: meaty, carby, and greasy. We never ate at restaurants, and dinner at home was usually rice, veggies, and maybe some pork bits tossed in there for flavor. My mom, who grew up in a labor camp during a famine, then had a particular attitude towards food: you have it, so stop complaining. One day, she finally yielded to my relentless begging for spaghetti, dumped a can of tomato chunks onto some boiled noodles, and that was that. (Love you, Mom!) I first learned about Buca di Beppo at the ripe old age of 24. My friends, who were shocked, tried to explain it to me: Italian-ish food, big portions, chain restaurant. From this description, I failed to see how it was different from Olive Garden. Oh, how wrong I was. Less than a year later, I found myself on a pilgrimage to the meatball mecca itself with retail's visual features fellow Priscilla Zhu. Here's how our journey went.SEE ALSO: I'm a feminist millennial woman who just ate at Hooters for the first time. Here's why I'd definitely go back. We rode the subway to the Buca di Beppo in Times Square, New York. There are 76 US locations in this chain.
On the outside, the place looked like it had seen better days. Only some of the signs' letters remained lit.
It was in the same building as a Planet Hollywood. Buca di Beppo and Planet Hollywood are owned by the same parent company.
Upstairs, we entered a dimly lit dark wood dining area that was decked out in Valentine's Day decor.
Even though we'd arrived around 1 p.m., only two other tables were occupied.
But the jigsaw-like mosaic of black-and-white photos on the wall, the classic red checkered tablecloths, and the oldies playing over the loudspeaker stirred something in me.
Sure, it's kitschy. But a place can be both kitschy and genuinely charming.
We ordered an insane amount of food, but we started with the customizable Buca Trio appetizer platter. We chose calamari, spicy shrimp, and mozz sticks.
Everything was fried to perfection and dusted with parsley.
The calamari were tender, crispy, and well-seasoned.
The spicy shrimp were fresh and garlicky, and they had just the right amount of kick to them.
The mozzarella sticks were actually triangles, but their shape did not detract from their taste.
Beneath a buttery layer of delicate breading was the kind of melted cheese that made us go "ooh!"
Dense, gooey, and elastic, the mozzarella stretched for miles.
Our waiter ferried over plates of soup and salad, chicken parmesan, and lasagna.
We started with the soup, which looked rich and creamy.
It was, but unfortunately all the flavors in the soup were overpowered by salt.
Our green salad also contained red tomatoes, purple onions, and black olives.
It was nothing to write home about, but it about met my expectations for a salad served at an Italian joint.
I dug into the thick tangle of fettuccine alfredo.
The pasta was dense and thick, and the cream was rich.
I found the alfredo a bit plain, but once I reached the other side of the plate, I understood why.
The crispy chicken parmesan was juicy and bursting with flavor. Its topping of cheese and rich tomato sauce seeped gladly into its crust.
Delicious though it was, it was so rich that alternating bites of chicken and pasta seemed the thing to do.
Next, I turned my attention to the cube of lasagna in meat sauce.
The lasagna was less impressive than the chicken parm. What was that mysterious block of white on top? Perhaps once it was cheese.
Unfortunately, the lasagna had spent a little too much time in Chef Mike. It was dry, hard, and unappetizing aside from the meat sauce.
I am referencing this infamous Gordon Ramsay moment. Our spaghetti, which we'd ordered later, arrived midway through the meal. I wanted that "Lady and the Tramp" moment.
It was topped with red sauce and the biggest, juiciest meatball I had ever seen.
But I shouldn't have judged this spaghetti by its gorgeous looks.
Although it gave me the pasta pull I'd been dreaming of all my life, it tasted kind of like nothing.
It would have been better with the sauce that topped the chicken parm or the lasagna.
But in the end, we were pretty satisfied with our meal. Red checkered tablecloths just make pasta taste better.
Even though we were stuffed, we still had one thing left to do: dessert.
We'd ordered a family portion of tiramisu. The kitchen had made it fresh for us.
It was a dense brick of cold, buttery mascarpone and thin layers of espresso-soaked cake.
But although it was heavy weight-wise, it was light in flavor. The cheese tasted more like cream, and the espresso cake layers were rather thin.
Still, for two red-sauce rookies, Buca di Beppo had been a solid first step. And it'll definitely be worth a return trip, especially if appetizers are on the table.
Most importantly, what was imperfect at Buca has inspired me to expand my journey to local restaurants in search of that perfect plate of spaghetti.