Few will deny that the ambiance of a restaurant either adds or takes away from an overall dining experience. The carefully coordinated upscale contemporary digs of Blythe Beck's Central 214 certainly work to perpetuate the interestingly calculated dichotomy of nouveau-chic-comfort food. The rustic, industrialized dinginess of the excellent KD's Barbeque in Midland, Texas lends an authenticity and sends a clear message to patrons that it's all about the food. The place you eat always says something about the food you eat in it. That is, except if you're talking about semi-popular Italian food chain, Bucca di Peppo, loosely translated as "Joe's Basement."
Right out of the shoot, the almost theme park like ambiance is all but crammed down your gullet. An employee pretending to be head chef, I think he was a floor manager, complete with white knot-buttoned jacket quickly appeared from stage right just as the perennial young, doe-eyed, vacuous hostess greeted us not without that familiar rote and disingenuous enthusiasm we've all come to expect with chain dining. Since it was our first time, the actor in the chef costume explained, we start with a tour of the kitchen. I couldn't help but think the designers were carry-me-out-in-a-box Martin Scorsese fans as we are led through what I'll call "the set," a twisting and turning maze of narrow hallways lined with Italian goomba-style photos in gaudy frames obviously glued to the wall, I suppose to prevent some bizarre low-quality frame-thieving fetish. The manufactured narrow hallways and intentionally low ceilings open up first into a bustling kitchen full of "authentic Italians" cooking "authentic Italian cuisine." I must admit, the V.I.P. chef's table situated inside the frantic kitchen did elicit a cheeky smile. From the kitchen we are marched through every large, intentionally poorly-lit New York guido-themed room. Each dining area's overdone outrageous decor is more gaudy than the next, culminating in the "Pope room" where large parties cram into a small room to sit at a giant circular table featuring a lazy susan with a bust of the pope perched atop again encased in protective plastic and bolted to the table.
Our odyssey ended in the "trophy room" where a ridiculous collection of bowling trophies adorn the walls along with a flood of even more Italian themed pictures highlighting the more satiric and stereotypical aspects of the experience. Finally, in our booth, the adequate if not a little inattentive waiter explains the ordering process (family style portions) and takes our order. We started off with the fried calamari and for our entrees went for a pepperoni pizza and an order of spaghetti with meatballs.
Style over substance has never held more meaning than inside the darkened corridors of Bucca di Peppo. Long story short, the food is expensive, and the food is terrible. The calamari tasted frozen, partially burned, and rubbery, the pizza was little more than a limp gooey mess of grease like something skimmed out of the Gulf of Mexico, and the spaghetti and meatballs were a disaster of their own: Undercooked pasta served in a pool of over-sweetened, watery marinara sauce with meatballs featuring an almost acrid flavor I just can't see the point in wasting my time to identify.
It is perhaps no surprise that none other than Planet Hollywood, inc. with their own culinary horror shows featured at their own self-titled restaurants owns Bucca di Peppo. Either would be a great place for those who love to spend all the time and money at a theme park without any of those pesky rides or attractions to enjoy. I must admit that the decor is original and entertaining, but the food and inflated prices alone should keep you at arm's distance with your other hand held just above your eye-line, your nose squeezed tightly by your thumb and index finger. Go to Disney World instead. If you want your wallet Polanskied, at least you can ride a roller-coaster afterwards. Not recommended.