When I entered Buca, I knew one thing for sure. I wasn't going to be paying for decor and atmosphere. The place has none. It's housed in an industrial looking basement with the charm of prison.
We started with charcuteries and cheese. The tiny bits of meat were blah. Somehow, they even managed to make the Calabrese salum taste dull. We let the waiter select the cheese. Oops. He picked ricotta and parmesan. Really? Who eats these on their own? Anyway the ricotta was nice enough but the parmesan was so-so. The third piece was average bit of blue cheese. We also had tasteless octopus.
Most of the diners seem to be eating pizza. That should have been a tip off. But I wasn't going to a fancy restaurant for pasta or pizza., so I looked at the mains. They differed a lot from the website menu. There were only five mains. They had two seafood alternatives, but I didn't want seafood. They had three meat dishes, but two were over $125. That left one dish - $36 for a piece of sausage. I was trapped. If this had been what they showed on the website, I never would have gone to the place.
The sausage was OK, but it was just sausage. If floated on a viscous lava flow of tasteless polenta. My wife had the fish, which was supposed to be boneless. Instead, she had to strain small bones through her teeth with every mouthful. Our third member order clam pasta, which reasonably good. The side of squash was a dark, pulpy mess that we all left virtually untouched.
I give up. I've been to almost all the top rated places and never been impressed. Sometimes, the food was downright terrible, Byblos, Buca Yorkville & Cafe Boulud, for example. And it's not just my opinion. The rotating cast the other diners I've eaten with all had pretty much the same impression. I'd really like to go to one of these places who some who thinks that this is great food so they can point it out to me. Tell me why the black disgusting squash and the insipid polenta were really great. Or why the piece of fat at Boulud was really wonderful. Or the revolting Basturma pide at Byblos was terrific. Or the horrible paper thin slices of smoked fish at Buca Yorkville are inedible.
There simply is no flavor. I will at least give Buca credit for generally cooking the food well - the fish, octopus and clams all cooked just right. But they had almost no taste. This is supposed to be an Italian restaurant, isn't it? Where's the Italianness? Where's any taste at all?
Perhaps, the answer lies in one of my favorite cookbooks, Rozin's "The Flavor Principle." She describes how each culture's food has a flavor principle, a set of distinct ingredients and tastes that define it. That's was missing from places like Buca. It's an Italian restaurant that doesn't taste or smell Italian. It doesn't taste like anything. There is no there there. This "reinventing", "fusion" etc etc of food has resulted in a bland homogenization and unwillingness to commit to any particular flavor principle. Or any particular flavor. Flavor is replace by using fancy, preferably obscure ingredients designed to impress the foodies. Our food is special, so you're special. It's all chef ego trip and hype and nothing more.
I want flavor. I want food that tastes like something. That's why I'd rather go to the average hole-in-the-wall Chinese or Mexican restaurant than waste any more calories on another meal at the likes Buca, Byblos, Patria, etc. It's why I'd rather go to Les Paradise or Le Select, which are really French, than Daniel Boulud.
The next time someone is taking me out for a business dinner downtown, I'll suggest Bahmi Boys.