Lately, I've had to make a weekly trek out to Brandon, with Lee Roy Selmon dropping me right in the heart of what most people associate with the bedroom community to the East. Strip malls. Chains. Miles of concrete parking lots.
Hungry after a long day of work and with limited time before I have to take care of my other obligations, I've resorted to what I expect most of the Brandon locals do: Instead of seeking out the one local eatery hidden in the forest of chain dining, I've just given in to convenience. When in Rome. Or Brandon.
Most of my experiences have completely fulfilled my low expectations. But one restaurant set itself apart. Buca Di Beppo deserves a shout out.
The walls are loaded with the same gimmicky nic-nacs you expect at a chain, but these are better, with decent reproduced documentary photography that well portrays the Italian and Italo-American experience. And you get to see most of it up close, since the restaurant is divided into a warren of tiny rooms, some with themes. Want dinner to feel like that Sunday supper with the devout Italian family you never had? Pick the Pope room. Who am I kidding, this kitsch is so spot on you should always ask for the Pope room. You may get a little too close to your fellow travellers because of the enclosed spaces, but that's by design. Buca Di Beppo's schtick is family dining.
No, not a kid's menu and coloring books, I mean heaping plates of food meant for an extended family, tossed into the middle of the table with serving utensils and a "go to it" by the staff. If you want more, there's an even bigger serving you can order. Want less? You're almost out of luck, since single portions — in classic chain style still big enough for two — are limited to just a handful of offerings.
None of the food will surprise, or even impress, but if you stick with traditional dishes like meaty lasagna loaded with seemingly several pounds of cheese, or spaghetti topped by reasonable red gravy and giant but tender meatballs, you'll be more than satisfied. The chopped salad loaded with cold cuts and sliced cheese, and the mildly spicy penne arrabiata are also fine choices.
Because of the reliance on basic pasta and sauce at Buca, the few wacky, food-lab chain dishes are relegated to the appetizer list, like deep-fried risotto balls stuffed with pesto and mozz or sausage and gorgonzola. They're salty and fried and not terrible. Skip the whole list and you'll be much happier.
Besides, you don't need the extra food. Even individual portions of the main courses are big enough for two. With the smaller of the two family sizes — all priced right around $15 — you'll be bringing home leftovers every time.
Sure, you could have thrown a pound of pasta in some water and opened up a jar of Newman's Own Sockarooni at home, but why bother when there's a quicker option just a minute off the expressway? When in Brandon, after all.