My 2c on the Buca Di Beppo debate
OK, first a disclaimer and credentials: I am an official LA chowhound. I will drive anywhere on a Saturday or Sunday for a new recommended restaurant experience. Short list: I particularly love Soot Bull Jeep, Wat Thai (the papaya salad lady on saturday), Dino's chicken, La Super Rica in Santa Barbara, Loteria and Singapore Banana Leaf in Farmers Market. I am highly suspicious of chain restaurants. I love trying new foods and shopping at Trader Joe's is a fun experience for me. Really.
Having said that, >I like Buca!< and I don't understand the bad rap the place gets from most people on the board. The pasta I've ordered has always been cooked al dente (even, surprisingly, at the Citywalk location-- though I've been to Redondo Beach and Pasadena as well). Rigatoni Positano is my favorite--it's like a baked ziti dish (well, rigatoni actually) with grilled chicken, grilled eggplant and melted mozzarella in a red sauce. Sometimes I'll buy a tray of it and serve it on Sunday Sopranos night to my friends with TJ's chianti. Sure, it's a simple dish, but it's full of flavor because the sauce is thick and robust and the chicken has been seasoned/grilled nicely. It's a basic dish, well prepared-- and as any chef can tell you, it's always possible to screw up even a basic dish (for instance by watering down the sauce and steaming or not seasoning the chicken). Buca's preparation always tastes right.
The "per due" chicken parmesan with stuffed shells is really nice as well-- the ricotta has a spicy fennel/anise kick to it that adds a lovely and surprising flavor.
Sure the ambiance is all kitsch, but I find it charming as long as I try to forget that it has been planned by corporate overlords and not somebody's Italian mother in law. Kind of like when I visit Disneyland, it's easy for me to forget about Michael Eisner and have a good time anyway.
On the other side of the Italian chain restaurant spectrum, I feel that The Olive Garden is utter shite. How they manage to wash all the character out of a cuisine that is so full of flavor is beyond me.
I simply don't understand why Buca gets such a bad rap on this board. The food is basic but it tastes good and is well prepared, so what's the problem?