Buca di Beppo: How authentic are they?

In the tradition of Internet snarkiness, as well as my habit of pointing out the obvious, I turn my attention now to the franchised Italian restaurant Buca di Beppo.

I have nothing against Buca di Beppo. I’ve eaten there once (at the Washington DC location), and found the foods filling, but marginal. I am sure that if I ate at the Seattle location, or at any other of their locations for that matter, that I would have a similar experience. Keep in mind that franchises are huge on uniformity of product. An idea, mind you, which is almost the antithesis of Italian cuisine.

What I want to demonstrate is how little we Americans know about Italian cuisine. This is something that the folks at Buca di Beppo are most assuredly aware of.

The restaurant chain bills itself as Immigrant Southern Italian dining, giving us the impression of the Napolese and Sicilian Immigrants that arrived in America during the late 19th and early 20th century. Does Buca di Beppo’s menu reflect this diet accurately?

Well, yes and no. Looking at their menu, I need to point out the following.

  • Spaghetti Meatballs – It’s important to remember that Spaghetti and Meatballs is an American dish based off of Italian influences. Yes, Italy has spaghetti, and yes, meatballs are part of Italian cuisine, but the two were separate. It was only in America that the two products were combined. As Jean Anderson wrote in her book American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century: In the beginning (around the turn of the century) Italian-America restaurants did not serve meatballs with their spaghetti. These were added to satisfy America’s hunger for red meat.

    But, as Buca di Beppo bills themselves as an immigrant influenced restaurant, It’s still accurate to put this on the menu. But it’s an Italian-American dish, not an Italian one.

  • Shrimp Scampi – Shrimp Scampi is a Venetian dish. Period. Venice is a northern city, not a southern one. There is also no one official “scampi” recipe, but dozens, if not hundreds of interpretations.

    Adding to the confusion is the fact that no one can find any reference to the dish as we know it here in America prior to the 1920′s. This is most likely not an Southern Immigrant Italian dish.

  • Fettucine Alfredo – Alfredo is very definitely a Northern dish. Although not called Alfredo until about 1912-1914, the recipe had been around for a while, probably two to three centuries beforehand. But it’s still not a Southern Italian dish. What tips us off to this?

    Well, Southern Italy is primarily a land of olive oil. Dairies are not as prevalent as they are in the north and the cuisine of southern Italy reflects that. If you see an Italian dish heavy in cream and/or butter, think Northern Italy, not southern.

  • Chicken and Eggplant Parmigiana – For the same reasons as the Alfredo. Besides, what part of Italy do you think Parmsesan cheese comes from?

    That’d be Parma, found in the North, for those of you playing along at home.

  • Tiramisu – This is my favorite example of how we interpret what exactly is “Italian food”. Tiramisu was created in the late 1960′s. There goes the “Immigrant” aspect.

    It was also developed in a City called Treviso, found around Venice. There goes the “Southern” aspect.

I won’t even bring up the Saltimbocca, Tuscan beans or Mashed Potatoes.

My point here is to not dump on Buca di Beppo. Rather, it is to point out how easily swayed we are by the image of Italian cuisine, rather than to understand what Italian cuisine happens to actually be.

It does beg a “chicken/egg” question: Does Buca di Beppo provide this sort of menu because of customer expectations, or are customer expectations set by the inaccurate menus of Buca di Beppo? Just a thought to carry with you the next time you enter a Italian (or Mexican, or Chinese) restaurant.

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