Buca di Beppo

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Sitting in over-sized booths replete with red-checked tablecloths, bottles of red table wine and vats of olive oil, diners at Dupont's Buca di Beppo may feel so at home in the traditional Italian bistro that they don't even notice the risque wall hangings. Covering every inch of space, sepia photos feature voluptuous Italian women holding loaves of bread and cans of tomato sauce in strategic places, providing plenty of eye candy and dinner conversation for Washington's more laid-back diners.

Buca di Beppo, or "Joe's Basement," serves up hearty, southern Italian fare that the management has labeled "family style." But unless your table includes 10 or more place settings, family is an understatement. The signature dish -- spaghetti and meatballs -- boasts three half-pound meatballs atop two pounds of pasta. For $17.95, the large order feeds an average party of 4 to 6, and the leftovers will relieve home-cooking duties for another few days.

Not to worry, though. The staff will not lead you astray. You will be warned numerous times about the large portions, and sharing appetizers and entrees is encouraged. The host or hostess explains the dining concept and leads all guests on a tour through the kitchen, past the "pope" table (named for its throne-like chair and godfather view), and into the cozy bar where kitschy Italian-style classics like "That's Amore" play all night. (Buca is not open for lunch). There are no menus, so diners are encouraged to walk around, gaze at the photos and read the main menu posted on the wall. Strolling about the room, you're are also able to gather other diners' advice about what to order and what looks good.

After discussing the tour, the tables, the photos and the restroom ornaments (be sure to pop your head in both the ladies' and the gents'), the food seems but one component of the entire eating experience. The garlic bread ($5.95), however, will remind you of what's truly important as the smell overwhelms the entire restaurant. Prepared like a pizza, the thick bread is topped with whole pieces of roasted garlic and covered in basil and Italian seasoning.

There are no real surprises in the appetizer and salad options: Fried calamari ($11.95), tomatoes and mozzarella ($8.95) and Caesar salad ($10.45 to $12.45) are among the crowd favorites. Pizzas are extra large with toppings like sausage and mushrooms ($15.95), and pepperoni and caramelized onions ($17.95). Spaghetti, linguine and ravioli dishes make up most of the pastas, but Macaroni Rosa ($18.95) is another house specialty: heaping piles of chicken, broccoli, mushrooms and peas in a pink sauce.

The eggplant ($15.95), chicken ($18.95) and veal Parmigiana ($19.95) are bargains for the amount of food on each platter, though the breading tends to be a bit soggy after soaking in mounds of sauce and cheese. The side dishes are expensive, though you can cut down on the overall price of the meal by ordering an appetizer, salad, side and just one entree or pizza for the table. Garlic mashed potatoes ($7.95), green beans with olive oil and lemon ($6.95) and four Italian sausages ($8.95) are available a la carte.

While the size of the dinner plates might seem insurmountable, dessert portions are even more shocking. A massive bowl of tiramisu ($8.95) weighs well over four pounds, which may be due more to the amount of rum and espresso soaked into the bread than the baking ingredients themselves. Bread pudding ($8.95) and cannolis ($8.95) also make fittingly extravagant ends to the gluttonous experience.
-- Stacy Rosenberg