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Buca di Beppo satisfies with Italian comfort food

Catholic priests have blessed all 88 Buca di Beppo restaurants across the country upon opening.

"It's a big part of Italian culture and heritage," says Pittsburgh paisano (general manager) Stan Weinstein.

Every Buca di Beppo -- which means "Joe's Basement" -- has a special Pope's table, with a bust of the Pope encased in glass in the center of the table. The Buca di Beppo in Station Square is no different, with its Pope table on the third floor. The kitchen table, where diners can watch their food being prepared, is on the second floor. The restaurant has almost 500 seats on all three floors.

One thing that hits diners as soon as they walk through the door is the eclectic artwork inhabiting every bit of space on the walls.

"We take a lot of effort to decorate the restaurant," Weinstein says. "Most pictures are from the 1940s and 1950s, of movie stars. A lot are family pictures."

Red-and-white checkered tablecloths cover the tables, and the lighting is subdued. As much fun as the atmosphere is at Buca di Beppo, executive chef-partner Joshua Schreiber thinks diners come for the food.

They serve classic Italian comfort dishes such as fettucine Alfredo, spaghetti, ravioli, chicken parmigiana, chicken saltimbocca, gnocchi and linguine. Don't expect a single serving, either. Food at Buca di Beppo is meant to be shared. Buca di Beppo serves only family-style portions, with the small portion feeding two to three and the large portion serving four to six.

The Buca di Beppo chain has been in existence since 1993, when the first one opened in the basement of a Minneapolis apartment building. The Station Square location opened in July 2000. In September, Planet Hollywood bought out Buca di Beppo, which is now a wholly owned subsidiary, according to Schreiber. But that did not change the menu or the quality of food that Buca di Beppo is known for.

Schreiber takes great pride in preparing Buca di Beppo's cuisine. He has been with Buca di Beppo three years, after stints at Viaggio's and Grand Concourse. The 32-year-old graduated from Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in 1997.

"For my externship, I worked at Peabody Hotel in Orlando, which is a five-star, five-diamond hotel," he says. "The only reason I came back up was for my son, Shawn, who is 15. Nine hundred miles was too far away from him."

The Baldwin resident, who also has a 3-year-old son named Kye, says that on a busy Saturday night, they can easily serve 700 guests. The restaurant employs several line cooks, 23 servers, four wait assistants, six hosts and bartenders. He oversees the entire kitchen staff.

"We serve everything family style, so that cuts down, but we still pound pretty hard," Schreiber says. "The average Joe Schmo can't do it. You have to have a thick skin -- it's not an easy lifestyle. Some weeks, I put in over 70 hours, but I really love my job."

His kitchen philosophy is simple.

"You're only as good as the people beneath you," he says. "You have to deal with a lot of different people in this job, and you have to care about everyone. That's important."

Chicken Carbonara

Buca di Beppo uses prosciutto instead of bacon in this dish, because prosciutto has a lot less fat. A classic carbonara dish uses bacon, says executive chef-partner Joshua Schreiber.

Schreiber says prosciutto gives it a more robust flavor, too. Make sure you saute the prosciutto until it's crispy on the outside but still chewy on the inside, and always cook on medium heat for this dish.

The Alfredo sauce is not the classic Buca di Beppo recipe -- that's a secret. But Schreiber offers his own interpretation.

12 cup olive oil

• 8 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced

14 cup chopped garlic

• 1 12 cups cooked chicken strips

• 1 12 cups heavy cream

• 1 12 cups Alfredo sauce ( see recipe )

23 cup peas

• Black pepper to taste

• 2 pounds cooked spaghetti

In a saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat until very hot.

Add the prosciutto slices, and saute until the prosciutto starts to brown and has bubbly white caps (see Photo 1 ).

Add the chopped garlic and saute just long enough for the garlic to begin to caramelize ( Photo 2 ).

Add the chicken, cream and Alfredo sauce, and slowly bring the sauce to a simmer.

Add the peas ( Photo 3 ), and season with black pepper.

Cook until the sauce thickens slightly and the chicken is hot.

Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce and incorporate well ( Photo 4 ). Serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Alfredo Sauce

• 1 quart heavy cream

• 4 tablespoons softened butter

• 2 cups parmesan cheese

• Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the cream over medium heat until reduced by a third. Add the softened butter, stirring constantly, then incorporate the cheese, and salt and pepper to taste.

Additional Information:

Buca di Beppo

Cuisine: Italian

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range: $9.99-$29.99

Notes: Food is served family style in two portion sizes -- small feeds two to three; large feeds four to six. Full bar and wine list. Handicapped accessible. Patio dining in season. Major credit cards accepted.

Address: 3 Station Square, South Side

Details: 412-471-9463 or Web site

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