Italians who recall Sunday dinner at Grandma's lovingly remember tables heavy with platters of breaded cutlets that sizzled under mozzarella slices, bowls of pasta peeking through thick tomato sauce and heaping baskets of garlic bread.
Paisans longing for those memories may want to visit Buca di Beppo, the new Italian eatery in the former Vinny T's space near the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Waltham Street.
The restaurant opened softly on Monday, without a liquor license. Thursday was Buca's official opening day, with a liquor license. Lexington and Seekonk are the first locations in the state, with restaurants in Dedham and Shrewsbury coming soon.
At first, customers will notice that every inch of this cozy restaurant is covered with the kitsch, clutter and memories that some Italian grandmothers were compelled to tack onto walls and into shelves.
"Buca" is Italian for basement. It's an apt name, and anyone who has eaten in Italy (and in the North End) knows the best restaurants are always downstairs in a small kitchen. Buca di Beppo actually means "Joe's Basement."
This Buca, one of 88 throughout the country, isn't in the basement, but that's fine. It still reeks of Italia and has quite a few flags to prove it. Take a look at the walls as you wait for a table. Frank Sinatra and his buddies, frozen in youth in framed pictures, look down. Mona Lisa, her hair uncharacteristically rolled in pink curlers, watches from another booth. Upstairs, posters line the ceiling.
The restaurant has a full-service bar, so customers can order a limoncello and gaze at the walls (and ceilings) while waiting for their meal. Those who don't drink should wander to the ladies room, if they are ladies. Remember snooping through the medicine cabinets and finding cologne, hair rollers and spray, bobby pins and all sorts of personal items at Grandma's? Well, all that's in a medicine cabinet in the ladies room. Even the walls have decades-old memorabilia.
That's just the visual fare. On the menu there's everything from manicotti and gnocci to sausage and peppers and spaghetti – all based on recipes from the first Buca owner's grandparents, who hailed from the Naples area of Italy and ended up in the Midwest.
Like most Italian homes, the servings are family style, a small platter for up to three people and a large platter for up to six. The server will help patrons decide how much to order.
My husband, Jim, and I started with a salad. He had a small Ceasar and I chose the chopped salad with red onions, pepperoncini, feta cheese, cucumbers, olives, red peppers and a house dressing.
We chose the chicken parm as the main entrée. It came with pasta, covered in some of the best sauce I've tasted outside of my mother or my home. It's sweet, thick and rich and definitely something to buy and pretend it's your own.
Order the garlic bread, it's unlike any other. Buca has an elaborate yet simple recipe that involves carmelized garlic, exceptionally expensive extra virgin olive oil, freshly made Buca bread and lots of love.
With all those locations (four in Massachusetts), it's easy to assume Buca di Beppo is a chain or franchise. Chase Romaro, the Vice President of the Buca family of restaurants spoke from the Minnesota hub and said the company instead thinks of these as a "collection of neighborhood restaurants."
After eating there, I'd have to agree. The Lexington branch has its own seafood menu, unavailable at other locations. Matt, one of the managers, said everything is made on the premises and overseen by Chef David Springett, Buca's culinary operations director.
"We're looking forward to serving the New England region and its communities with our family-style dining," Springett said. "We've been able to truly incorporate the flavors of the New England coast in the menu with carefully crafted dishes, like lobster ravioli and mussels marinara."
Unable to finish the tender and carefully breaded chicken cutlets, a more than bountiful salad, pasta cooked to an al dente perfection and the incredible garlic bread, we had no room for desert. If you are inclined, the deserts are also made on-site and look mouth-wateringly good.
As Chef Springett said, "Let's mangia!"
Buca di Beppo is located at 20 Waltham St. and can be reached at 781-861-0162. It is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.