Comfort drinking at Buca di Beppo

It's time to talk Paula Deen, y'all. Who better to focus on in these tough economic times than someone who has raised overindulgence to a sacrament? Just as when poor folks flocked to the movies during the Depression to see silly rich people living frivolously, I find myself turning to Deen's cooking show daily to see her throw another mountain of whipped cream on a plate of chocolate chip cookies.

If you've never seen Deen's show or read her cookbooks, let's just say that she is every fat person's fantasy chef. Have you ever eaten anything and thought, hmmm, this would taste a whole lot better with bacon on it? Paula is way ahead of you. She is from the South and has a fantastic drawl and a bubbly personality. She's a liberal dressed up like a Republican, and has an innate stoner mentality when it comes to porking out. She will make the most decadent chocolate cake and put Snickers in the batter, in the frosting, and in layers between the cake. Then she'll slice up a piece, unwrap a kingsize candy bar, and shove it down into the wedge like the mast of a ship.

But the other day Deen truly outdid herself on her show. She was preparing breakfast for her girlfriends, and introduced what she called the Ladies Brunch Burger. It was ridiculous: a hamburger patty with a fried egg on top, strips of bacon, and cheese. Jeez, I thought, being reminded of the "Good Morning Burger" on The Simpsons. But then she did something truly amazing. For buns, she whipped out two glazed doughnuts. Not one cut in half, y'all, but two: One on the top and one on the bottom. Y'all!

I was walking down Howard Street the other day and thinking up recipes to send to Deen, such as this waffle-fry nachos thing I have always wanted to create, when I saw a blinking neon sign in the distance, beckoning me in. "Buca di Beppo," it read, shining like a casino's come-on in Glitter Gulch, with just as much risk and promise. I couldn't remember the last time I went to that place, but it had been more than a decade. We have all celebrated someone's birthday there at least once in our lives. It's "family-style" Italian food à la Paula Deen, with massive portions and zip calorie cutting.

I walked in and recognized the bodega bordello shtick the chain uses, plus the busy, old-fashioned carpeting and hundreds of old photos on the walls. I actually love that look. The bar was off to the right, so I veered that way and sat down next to a row of sepia photos of ancient lady wrestlers. I ordered a beer, and in true Beppo fashion the bartender plunked a gigantic glass down in front of me containing 22 ounces of Sierra Nevada. They don't even ask what size you want; they just give you the biggie.

The bartender and two construction workers to my left were having a spirited, er, discussion about one of the men's apparent use of the word "gay" as a pejorative. (I had missed that part, but I guess he probably said something like "The Raiders were hella gay this year.") The bartender was gay and had taken playful umbrage. The man was quickly backpedaling, defending his comment. "No, no, no," he said with a smile. "I got nothing against the gays." The bartender nodded and said it was no prob. "No," the guy continued, "If I cut you with a knife, you're gonna bleed the same as me!"

I couldn't help myself, and I added, in the same accent as the construction worker, "Yeah, If I run you over, then back up and run you over again, it's just like if I was to run over someone who wasn't gay." The guys laughed, and so did the bartender. They were a jolly bunch. The construction workers continued to talk among themselves, at first arguing about drywall, then discussing a dimwitted co-worker they had dubbed Cookie.

I perused the menu, which was even bigger than I had remembered. The joint is expensive, no doubt about it, but I suppose you share the food with several people and then split the bill. Strangely, nothing looked very appealing. My friend's voice saying "Buca di Shit" ran through my head; she is a proud Italian and would miss her own grandmother's 100th birthday if it took place at this restaurant. Whatever. I say it's pretty hard to screw up Italian food.

The bartender had created a layered drink in the colors of the Italian flag in a shot glass on the bar. He was experimenting with new cocktails, he said. The concoction was chock-full of crème de menthe, and frankly it looked pretty gnarly. He gave me a taste. It was indeed pretty gnarly. But then his boss came in and saw it. The bartender proudly introduced the drink, but the manager immediately chastised him for wasting booze. That's the thing about chains (Beppo has 88 locations); the management is usually just beastly.

Not much gets to this bartender, though. He was an amiable chap, and let it roll off him. He and the manager began a discussion about how well the restaurant was doing, because things were slow. (It always amazes me what owners and operators will talk about with me sitting right there.) The manager said that they were doing okay, despite the economy. Then he went into a rant about overpouring at the bar, and how that is tantamount to stealing, yadda yadda. I tried to hide my little glass of crème de menthe.

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