Buca di Beppo is the newest chain restaurant to join the growing throng on the north end of Academy here in Colorado Springs. I couldn't believe another chain. Another Italian chain. From Woodmen to Chapel Hills Mall, there isn't room to swing a cat without hitting a bottle of Chianti and a paper tablecloth where the waitstaff can all write their names upside down in crayon.
Why another one? Why here? I called Buca's vice president of marketing, one Lane Schmiesing, and asked him, "Why?"
First of all, Buca had already opened a restaurant up in Denver, and a lot of people from the Springs were visiting, asking when they could expect one down here.
"But we knew even before we opened the Denver store that we wanted one in Colorado Springs," Schmiesing said. "It's a matter of density of population and demographics."
"There's a high propensity of dining out a lot in Colorado Springs," he said, which makes the market highly attractive.
But why in the middle of a virtual Restaurant Row? I couldn't help thinking that the close proximity of Macaroni Grill, Zio's and Olive Garden would hurt business.
Schmiesing assured me, "It doesn't really matter. Not a whole lot of restaurants in the city compete with us directly and offer the kind of dining experience we offer. Plus we like visible locations. People go to other restaurants and see us, want to know what we're all about and come try us out."
The uniting theme behind Buca di Beppo is "immigrant southern Italian cuisine," and you will hear that phrase repeatedly from your well-coached server. Schmiesing informed me that "our restaurant is really patterned after restaurants the immigrants from Italy would have opened in the Little Italys in the early part of the last century, in New York, Cleveland, Chicago."
That's also the reason why there's so much Catholic iconography on the walls. "Catholicism was so important, so much a part of daily life for Italians. We feel we should maintain those ties with the church, which isn't uncommon in the Little Italys even today when a new business opens." So on opening day's pizza cutting ceremony, attendees included a local priest to deliver a blessing.
The interior of Buca is unlike any place I've ever visited. It's interesting, unique and perhaps a little confusing. I asked Schmiesing if anyone ever gets lost. He laughed, and assured me that surprise and discovery is a big part of the experience. They want to engage your mind, because once you've engaged someone's mind, you've formed a bond. In the old restaurants in, say, New York City's Little Italy, he told me, you might well have walked through the kitchen when you came in. "The kitchen is the heart of the house, " he said, "and we want people to see the cooks in the preparation of the food, the cleanliness, the smoothness of the operation."
Besides encouraging you to wander through the kitchens and chat up the chefs, Buca encourages communication among your dinner party, whether you want it or not. The menus are printed on the walls, with the servers carefully trained to answer all your questions about ingredients, heritage and preparation. Schmiesing said, "Picking up a menu puts up a barrier, allows you to become introspective and think about what you're going to have. Having the menu on the wall forces you to collaborate, talk about what you want and what you're going to have. It just becomes more fun."
Trust me, you need to collaborate on the food. When you see a server pass by with a seven-pound platter of Chicken Cacciatore, you know it's too big to tackle by yourself. The same goes for the spaghetti and meatballs, with three half-pound meatballs (the size of softballs), two pounds of pasta and fresh marinara sauce. You're forced to cooperate with others at your table, but I have to admit it was a lot of fun.
Even the salad we tried was enormous, easily enough for 6 to 8 people. And I can only sing the praises of the traditional Neapolitan thin-crusted pizza. Roughly two feet long and a foot wide, it's covered with the barest layer of sauce for flavor, a little cheese and some fresh basil. The crust is wafer-thin and cracker-crisp, a pleasant change from the heavier, doughier varieties.
I give high marks to the Eggplant Parmigiano as well. The platter was loaded with three huge stacks of crumbed and fried eggplant slices and a delicious, fresh-tasting tomato sauce redolent with garlic and basil. The fresh green beans were the best I've ever eaten in any restaurant, perfectly cooked and still crunchy, kissed with a splash of olive oil and a splash of lemon juice.
Probably the most remarkable thing about Buca di Beppo, which will make it stand out like a shining star above other chain restaurants of all types, is the simple fact that they take reservations, all day, every day, for any size party (the Pope's Table seats up to 18). As Schmiesing simply put it, "It's a big benefit for our guests, so it pays off for us and our guests."
Finally, a corporate philosophy I can agree with.