The San Fernando Valley has a new restaurant put together expressly for those who remember sharing big noisy meals at Grandmother's house--preferably an Italian grandmother who believed that nothing is so good for the soul as a full belly.
But if your own grandmother happens to be from Timbuktu, who cares? If she made your eyes bug out when she served you heaping plates of food, you'll understand what this place is all about.
Buca di Beppo opened for business Monday in Encino, and when you go to this place, you get such big portions that you and your companions must share, lest you all go home cutting a somewhat wider swath in the world than you want to.
"We call our food immigrant southern Italian, which means lots of red sauces, lots of garlic and lots of fresh vegetables--as opposed to northern Italian food, with its creams and cheeses," says Stephanie Swickard, the restaurant's kitchen manager.
"When the Italians came to America, they didn't find provolone like they had in Italy, and they didn't find lots of other things just like they had at home," said Swickard. "So they made do with what they found here--and they made do with a passion.
"If you walked into an Italian house and broke bread, you were family. That's what we're trying to do here. We want people to walk in, break bread, and know that this is family."
In keeping with that idea, Chef Vittorio Renda, who comes from Calabria in the south of Italy, serves up portions too big for any ordinary appetite in a deliberate effort to get people to share their dishes.
"People may find it takes a little to get used to the way we do it here," Swickard says. "But the idea is to get everybody at the table talking about what to order and how to share it . . . If you do it that way, our prices are really cheap."
She's right. Among the entrees, the chicken parmigiana goes for $17.95, the chicken Marsala for $18.95, and the veal Marsala for $19.95--dear if you down a whole dish yourself, quite reasonable if you share.
Also on the menu:
* Half a dozen salads and five antipastos;
* Eight different pizzas;
* Thirteen pasta dishes, including five that come in small portions; and
* Half a dozen desserts.
The Encino Buca di Beppo is the second restaurant by that name in these parts--the other being in Pasadena--and the 13th in a chain. The name means "Joe's Basement" in Italian, and it recalls the first Buca de Beppo in a basement location in Minneapolis.
The Valley's Buca di Beppo is at 17500 Ventura Blvd. in Encino, (818) 995-3288.
Partners Santino De Felice and Cheryl Keller will offer a five-course special wine-tasting dinner April 2 at Di Gennaro Ristorante in Woodland Hills.
The dinner will feature the wines of the Italian winery Banfi--the second time De Felice and Keller have featured Banfi wines in a single-vineyard dinner this spring.
On the menu: crab cakes with a creamy lemon sauce, a Caesar salad, lobster ravioli with a saffron sauce, sea bass Florentine or osso buco, and for dessert, either fresh fruit and cheese or a raspberry sorbet.
The wines: a 1994 Serena Sauvignon Blanc, a 1995 Fontanelle Chardonnay, a 1994 Mandrielle Merlot, a 1992 Brunello de Montalcino, and a Brachetto d'Acqui.)
The price: $85 per person, tax and tip included. De Gennaro Ristorante is at 20969 Ventura Blvd. in Woodland Hills, (818) 347-3413.
As expected, Chef Josie Le Balch has left Saddle Peak Lodge, the Calabasas restaurant whose name she made synonymous with adventurous game dishes in two stints as executive chef.
Now Le Balch is helping restaurateur Liza Utter with the kitchen and menu of a new Santa Monica place, the Beach House restaurant, due to open in June.
* Juan Hovey writes about the restaurant scene in the San Fernando Valley and outlying points. He may be reached at (805) 492-7909 or fax (805) 492-5139 or via e-mail at jhoveygte.net