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EATS: in and around the Valley | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Italian in a Big Way

Buca di Beppo's playful staff serves eye-popping portions that make for a culinary show.

April 30, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"You're lucky," cooed the exuberant hostess when we showed up at Buca di Beppo without a reservation. "Usually," she explained as she led us through the kitchen to a back table, "there's an hour and a half wait."

With all the restaurant competition these days, it speaks volumes that people would put up with such a wait. So what's Buca di Beppo?

It's an Italian restaurant featuring outrageously large servings, over-the-top decor and a pleasantly hammy staff trained to make your meal a show. There's no saying yet whether or not the concept has staying power, but Buca certainly has energy.

Prepare yourself for a spectacle at the new Encino location. Your eyes are bound to pop when you see the food being delivered to the tables. Everything comes in huge family-size portions, not intended to serve just one person.

As for the interior, it could be described as "Phantom of the Opera" meets Yogi Berra, or just plain sensory overload, Italian style. The walls are plastered with outrageous pictures of everything and everybody Italian.

The food served is hearty cooking, though, and much of it is quite pleasing. Of course, if you're looking for soul and not merely a clever packaging of southern Italian cuisine, Buca di Beppo may not be for you.

Unless there are more than six in your party, it's probably better to order small, as opposed to large, salads (or anything else). The fresh-mixed green salad, which you can get with sliced prosciutto and provolone added, looks about a foot high--and that's the small size. The small Caesar is an equally huge portion, the romaine lettuce and golf-ball-size croutons tossed in nondescript creamy dressing and buried under grated cheese.

The pizzas--the thin-crusted Neapolitan style--are terrific . . . and only slightly smaller than skateboards. The pepperoni pizza is completely covered with sliced sausage and liberally sprinkled with pickled peppers; vegetali rustica is topped with eggplant slices, escarole, onions, tomatoes, artichokes, broccoli and provolone. I liked both pizzas with a splash of chile- and garlic-infused pizza oil.

When it comes to pasta, the portions are again immense; even a small order could feed a hungry foursome. Our spaghetti all'amatriciana (just called matriciana on this menu) didn't have enough pancetta bacon, but it did have a nice al dente texture and lots of tomatoes, red onions and pecorino cheese. There is a richly satisfying dish of tortelloni filled with ground veal and blanketed with a cream sauce full of mushrooms, peas and broccoli. The linguine with white clam sauce is fine, too, ringed by dozens of tiny steamed clams.

The best entree I've tasted was chicken Vesuvio, a whole chicken sauteed with lots of white beans and sausage, and a couple of potatoes. Purists might prefer the bland but well-prepared veal Marsala with fresh mushrooms, the biggest veal dish I've ever seen.

As a critic, I've eaten enough tiramisu to last me several lifetimes, but Buca di Beppo's version won me over. It's dense layers of rum-soaked ladyfingers, rich mascarpone cream and chocolate shavings, served in a big bowl. There's also a sweet, eggy bread pudding with rivulets of melted caramel and chocolate running through it. Either dessert would serve six.

BE THERE

Buca di Beppo, 17500 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday 5-11 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 4-10 p.m. Valet parking. Full bar. All major cards. Suggested dishes: pepperoni pizza, $14.95; tortelloni, $19.95; chicken Vesuvio, $19.95; tiramisu, $8.95. Call (818) 995-EATT.

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