Reviewing Buca: Just Go to Bettolona

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Photo by JB

Jason Bell reviews Buca, a new Italian restaurant on 103rd and Broadway.

In Sebastiano Cappitta’s growing empire of Italian restaurants, Buca (201 West 103rd St.) colonizes an Amsterdam Avenue corner just beyond easy reach of Columbia students. Cappitta opened the excellent Bettolona (3143 Broadway) barely a month ago, serving brick oven pizza and house made pasta.

Offering a nearly identical menu and opening in such quick succession to Bettolona, Buca looks like the work of a man bent on Morningside Heights pizza domination. With prices that stay below $12, Buca—and Bettolona for that matter—remain reasonably affordable. Unfortunately, Buca is not nearly as enjoyable as Bettolona; the entire operation feels rushed, a frenzied expansion that will unlikely enhance Cappitta’s brand in the neighborhood.

Anemically white, the space feels diminutive and cramped. Cappitta tries for a convivial, open dining room at Buca, but fails. Instead, the restaurant follows Cappitta’s formulaic playbook. The soundtrack is lots of “Mambo Italiano” and a steady parade of bland radio hits.

Antipasti are almost universally disappointing. A caprese salad features three wan slices of tomato, three accompanying pieces of mozzarella, and a pathetic sprig of basil. Although the mozzarella tastes impressively creamy and fresh, the pulpy, unseasonable tomatoes mark this dish as amateurish. Buca’s rendition of melanzane alla parmigiana, eggplant and mozzarella in tomato sauce, is the caprese’s kindred spirit: small portion, underseasoned eggplant, and a shallow tomato sauce. Worst of all, vegetali arrosto, mixed vegetables grilled in the brick oven, looks fussy, not at all rustic. Here, a drizzle of balsamic bookends carefully arranged—and tiny—piles of roasted peppers, eggplant, and beets.

Besides a rotating pasta al forno, oven-baked pasta of the day, Buca serves gnocchi both for lunch and dinner. Despite a soupy excess of that one-dimensional tomato sauce, tender pasta and rich Fontina make this Italian classic hearty and satisfying.

Understandably, Buca prides itself on its pizza, individual-sized pies plastered in premium toppings and baked in a hellfire-spitting oven. Manning that oven, Attilio Reale trained in Turin and hails from Naples. But Reale crafts crispier pies than the typical Neapolitan variety, cracker-like affairs that tend towards crunchy rather than pillowy.

While Bettolona’s pizza seems more polished, Buca offers a wider spectrum of options. For instance, the Napoli highlights anchovies and capers, a craveably fishy, briny snack not for low-sodium diets. Other traditional pizzas like the tartufata, a truffle-laced concoction, and the quattro formaggi e salamino, four cheeses and spicy soppressata (an Italian salami), steer the menu in a predictable direction. Buca’s pizza, however, appears similar enough to Bettolona’s that heading uptown makes more sense.

At lunch, Buca also prepares panini and a baked egg dish, uova al tegamino. Avoid the eggs, as the oven blasts them into chewy, chalky submission. For dessert, Buca’s tiramisu tastes weak, barely of coffee and mostly of custardy nonsense.

Save the calories and eat more pizza instead.

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  1. bettalona

    is delicious and lovely.

    strongly recommend.

  2. bwog  

    what happened to pinnacle? its closed and says 'uni-cafe coming soon'.

  3. When is Jason Bell going to learn. . .

    . . . that good food criticism doesn't have to be universally negative? It's easy to trash a place. It'd be far more interesting to read about an experience he actually enjoys. I doubt he has the chops to write that review.

  4. Bad Analogy Guy  

    Jason Bell's criticism of restaurants are like the Nazis' criticism of Jews. No matter what, you can get them to like it.

  5. Dear you guys

    The pizza isn't authentic if you have a mexican making it.

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