When we were down in Southern California visiting my cousin(s) a few weeks ago, we had dinner at a Buca di Beppo: me, my parents, my sister, my cousin, her husband and their two kids. Buca di Beppo is a chain of family-style Italian restaurants. If you've ever been to one, you know it's going to be the last place to go for a romantic dinner for two so skip it for your Valentine's Day dinner. Furthermore, you never want to go with a group of people fewer than 6. Even more is better.
That would be because Buca di Beppo is almost always crowded, certainly noisy and most of all, they serve a ton of food. Each dish is meant to be shared family style. If there are only two of you, prepare to get only one entree to share and even then, you'll probably end up with leftovers to take home. It's much better to go with a crowd so you can get a variety of dishes to split. "Regular"-size entrees start at around $20 but they typically serve 3-4 or more people so, with a large group, the per person cost can be pretty reasonable. But the key is to go with a bunch of people. With just 6 adults and 2 small children, we were pushing the limit by getting the garlic bread appetizer and 3 entrees. Even then we still ended up with leftovers.
Garlic Bread appetizer
I don't know that I would call it gourmet Italian food but it's generally pretty good. If you're an Italian food snob and prefer your pasta from Italy and tomatoes harvested from vineyards in Tuscany, this may not be the place for you. If you're coming with a large party and want "safe" dishes that can appeal to a variety of palates, Buca is a good option. I first discovered it in business school when my friends and I traveled in large packs before b-school events and the one in Palo Alto could easily accommodate groups of our size. With so many options to choose from, it was easy to let those who had a strong preference order and the rest of us ate whatever was put in front of us.
For this family visit, we mixed it up a bit with the Prosciutto-Stuffed Chicken (really good), Shrimp Florentine (tasty) and my comfort food of choice, spaghetti and meatballs. The meatballs were huge so this was a fitting dish for a carnivore (that would be me) as well as a carb-lover (also me).
And you all know me well enough to know I usually like to get dessert when I eat out but Buca di Beppo is one of those places where you (or at least I) are(am) often too full at the end of the meal to have any room for dessert. Even water gets filling at the end. This is not a place to go if you're on a diet, especially if you don't exercise strict portion control. It's also not somewhere you go for a quiet dinner for two because, besides the large portion-sized entrees, all of the Buca di Beppo restaurants I've gone to have been crowded and noisy. If you tried whispering sweet nothings to your date, I'm afraid you'd end up shrieking it at him or her just to be heard. I'm not sure I've ever even seen a table for two at a Buca.
Spaghetti with Meatballs - sorry for the blurry picture)
Although, speaking of dates, on the night we went, it must have been some kind of Winter Formal type of evening for the local high school because many of the long tables were filled with teenagers, the guys in suits and the girls in really short gowns. Really short. Or I'm just old and way past 16 to appreciate teenage couture.