Restaurant Review - Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo

A riot of sight, sounds and scents at Buca di Beppo

"Would you like the Kitchen Table?" the server asked the family next to me as we waited in front of Buca di Beppo, stuck in plastic lawn chairs for an expected 30- to 45-minute wait.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Well it's kind of loud, but it's a table in our kitchen. You get to watch everything that happens."

The young girl in the party went to check it out and made an immediate decision:

"We have to sit there."

The table is actually a barrel booth, smack dab in the middle of all the behind-the-scenes action, with racing servers, chefs, prep cooks and plenty of noise.

But you don't have to sit in the kitchen to be overwhelmed by the intensity and vibrancy of Buca di Beppo. The concept for the Buca chain originated in a basement in Cleveland's Little Italy (buca means basement) and arrived in Alpharetta at the beginning of April. Just a few weeks later, there's already a wait to experience the wacky Italian eatery with its ceiling-to-floor artifacts: posters, paintings, statues, photos and knickknacks. It's almost as if you've entered the Italian Village at Epcot. The noise, the smells, the bustle — it's all bright, cheery and upbeat.

With its maze of tables, walls, nooks and crannies, the 8,000-square-foot space feels twice as large — and with no windows and dim lighting, you'll want to start looking for the Family sitting in one of its out-of-the-way corners. Maybe at the Pope's Table, complete with a glass-encased John Paul bust and velvet pope paintings flanking all sides. Or the Cardinal's Room, a red space with vinyl booths and cardinal vestments. But the restaurant is more than simply a fun, wacky atmosphere. It also delivers great big family-size portions to share over a bottle of Chianti. It's not all-you-can-eat, but it's all you can handle.

A Calabrese pizza ($16.95) arrived and was placed on unopened cans of Mancini Sweet Roasted Peppers to allow room for the other plates on the table. The pie is a huge rectangular plank of thin, crisp dough cut into squares, piled high with sliced tomatoes, sliced fried potatoes, black olives, prosciutto, fresh rosemary and pecorino cheese. A decanter of hot-pepper-infused olive oil accompanied the pizza and — once drizzled over the already salty, sweet layers — gave it a needed kick.

Everything's big at Buca di Beppo. The small mixed-green salad ($10.45) — a huge mound of the leafy stuff tossed with oil and vinegar, onions and pepperoncini — spilled off the serving tray as we tried to pile it onto our plates. For a few dollars more, add prosciutto and gorgonzola.

The long list of a la carte items includes veal, eggplant and chicken entrees, and spaghetti, linguini and other pastas. But if you want more items without having to order everything, try the Buca per Due. For $22.95, you get a choice of manicotti, stuffed shells, baked ravioli or cannelloni paired with chicken with lemon, eggplant, chicken or veal parmesan. The manicotti wasn't very inspired, just simple pasta stuffed with seasoned ricotta swimming in a dull marinara. But the veal was wonderful — large flanks drenched and coated in breadcrumbs then fried.

The only problem with all the cacophony and hustle at Buca di Beppo: We were virtually forgotten in our corner. Perhaps the server got lost along the way, or was distracted by the visual panoply, but it was a continuous tug of war to keep our water glasses filled.

Buca di Beppo clears out early, so it's much easier getting a table later in the evening. And with corporate chains so often destroying the character and fun of Italian cuisine, it's nice to see a chain eatery feeding the masses with originality and humor. Grazie!??