“ Address: Pool Lane / Bromborough / CH62 4UE „
I visited the Buca di Beppo restaurant at the Village Hotel back in July with a bunch of colleagues. I didn't know it at the time, but it seems that Buca di Beppo is a restaurant 'concept' that's found its way into hotel chains in both the UK and USA and probably other places too. Apparently Buca di Beppo started up 20 years ago in Minneapolis and got established in nearly 90 American cities before making a deal with the Village hotels group. The chain is owned by Planet Hollywood, which doesn't make me any more favourably disposed to them. In the UK, you should only find Buca di Beppos in Village hotels - which is a relief since it will make it rally easy to avoid them.
On the way to the hotel we'd been talking in the car about Italian restaurants and I'd expressed my belief that whilst you can't beat a good proper Italian reastaurant but it's hard to find anything other than a bad 'American-Italian'. I distinguish clearly between the two types of restaurants with my dislike directed at places like Frankie and Benny's - sadly that's exactly the kind of place that Buca di Beppo is. I was travelling with an Italian colleague who conceded that not all Italian food is wonderful and some can get quite 'heavy' but on the whole he agreed that the USA had done no favours to his nation's cuisine. What I dislike is the way that such restaurants seem to reject all that's good, light, fresh and tasty about Italian food and instead rely on a deep fat fryer and far too much fat and batter. If something can be buggered about with by the application of too much melted cheese or added mayo, then that's what such places love to do. At this point, I didn't realise that the hotel's Italian spoke with an American accent.
~Not exactly spoiled for choice~
We checked in, quickly dropped our bags and then met at the restaurant. I was first to arrive and I spent a few minutes looking at the menu that was displayed on the wall with a table in the way so that I really had to strain to look over and see what was on offer. Surely the whole point of putting a menu outside a restaurant is to encourage people to read it. I really did think that there wasn't anything at all that I wanted to eat. When my boss arrived, I told her it wasn't to my taste at all and that I'd probably just skip dinner and go to my room but she persuaded me to have a drink and another look at the menu. Of course once we were seated, it was going to be really hard to make a swift exit and after a lot of searching, I spotted a couple of things I didn't totally hate. We ordered gins and slimline tonics whilst we waited and I gave in to the inevitable and stayed.
The restaurant is decorated in classic American-Italian 'cheese' décor; lots of photos of famous Italians, lots of jolly smiling people in black and white photos making their new lives in the New World. This is 'wall personality' bought by the meter and I'd go so far as to guess that every Buca di Beppo probably has exactly the same photos of the same smiling Italians getting off the boat at Ellis Island and setting up home. The furniture is also doing a 'diner' vibe with lots of little mock-leather upholstered booths lining one side of the room. It doesn't go quite as far as Krispy Kreme with their 'retro diner' design but they draw on almost every cliché in the book.
When we told the 'greeter' that we had a group of six, he kicked into action re-configuring the round table with a rotatable 'lazy Susan' in the middle to add an additional chair and place setting. I was impressed by this guy as he was friendly and professional and so eager to please that I couldn't really leave. He said if I couldn't find exactly what I wanted, he could ask the chef to modify things for me. It would have been churlish at that point to turn tail and leave. He told us - seemingly without the slightest bit of irony - that "Your server this evening will be Hannah". Both he and Hannah were well turned out, had all the right answers and the biggest smiles in the game. I was quite impressed that a hotel restaurant on the Wirral had clearly put in the effort to train the staff so well - especially given the underwhelming charm of the hotel's own reception staff. I wondered if the alien body snatchers had swooped down and replaced a couple of miserable moany locals with two charm-school graduates.
I wasn't tempted by the starters but Hannah was happy for me to order a side portion of tomato, red onion and basil salad. For my main I interrogated the waitress (oops, server) about the tuna steak with braised beans and salsa verde in order to understand what 'braised beans' really meant. She seemed quite knowledgeable and described them as cooked in Marinara sauce. It sounded pretty good. She also told me that they recommended the tuna served pink which sounded just fine to me.
In addition to the standard menu cards there was a page of specials for the day which included items that my colleagues picked. Two ordered a mixed fried fish starter to share and a third had fried calamari from the standard menu. The fourth went for a mozzarella salad, and finally one picked the chicken salad in the small portion. For mains three of them went for a prawn pasta dish off the specials list, one for chicken Parmigiana and one joined me with the tuna.
~The proof of the pudding....~
My salad was fine - but let's be honest, even a bad restaurant can't go too far wrong cutting up a tomato and adding a few bits of red onion and some fresh basil. I'd asked for it without dressing so I don't know whether it would have been dressed as a standard. It's a good time of year for tomatoes and these were served with some small cherry tomatoes which I think might have been semi-sun dried. The salad was pleasant although the red onion had quite a kick and was certainly lingering for a long time after I'd finished.
I asked for another gin and slimline tonic and someone else requested a glass of red wine. The server clearly got so distracted by proudly telling her about how all their wines were Italian that she totally forgot my drink and five minutes after the red wine had been delivered, I was still waiting and had to remind her. When she brought my drink, it was with the wrong kind of tonic. It's not the worst crime in the book but such examples of lack of attention to detail were quite disappointing.
My main course was a disaster and if I hadn't been with colleagues I probably would have made a bit of a fuss. Even before I picked up my cutlery, I was expecting trouble because the plate was quite cool. It wasn't actually cold, but clearly wasn't as hot as it should have been. I can only imagine that the beans had been plated up and left on the plate to go cold before the tuna was placed on top. The combination of hot fish and lukewarm beans wasn't a good one. The beans were served in what Hannah had called a 'really lovely marinara sauce' but were a dull, tasteless, sticky mess that was only slightly better than cold baked beans. The salsa verde was just a green tasteless mess but the biggest problem was the tuna. It wasn't the slightest bit pink inside but totally cooked through making it rather tough. If I'd not specified how I wanted it, I might have not been so bothered but we'd had quite a discussion about how I wanted it, so I was disappointed to get it so badly overcooked. I ate the tuna, left most of the beans and reflected that my first instinct to skip dinner had been the right one.
~What's Italian for 'not very impressive'?~
My boss left more than half of her pasta and half of her wine but I wasn't close enough to examine the leftovers of the rest of the group. Certainly nobody was cooing with delight at what they'd eaten although the fried fish starter and the calamari had been polished off and Mario - our Italian colleague - proclaimed his chicken Parmigiana to be ok but not as good as he'd had in Australia where it's practically the national dish (his wife's an Australian). Certainly he wasn't comparing it to an Italian chicken Parmigiana. It was late and nobody was interested in desserts so we asked for the bill and then left.
I can't tell you what the bill for six of us came to as someone else picked it up but my salad would have been just under £3 and the tuna was just under £13. The restaurant offers a variety of early diner deals and two-people-three-course options at weekends but I don't intend to bore you with the various permutations as I honestly can't recommend you eat at this Buca di Beppo (or possibly any other). Hotel restaurants don't have to be rubbish but sadly this one conformed to all my expectations that it would be disappointing. The staff were nice but I really wouldn't give this place a second chance.