Community Eating via Buca di Beppo

From the Buca di Beppo facebook page.

One of my colleagues at the LES Tenement Museum is collecting oral histories from Chinatown.  This excerpt about eating caught my attention:

Interviewer: I remembered when I came to this country, one day I was dining out in a restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown. I saw lots of people ate with a fork on a plate. I wasn’t very used to it. In Taiwan, we only used plates to collect bones we didn’t want.
Interviewee A: Ah…..that’s right.
I: In Taiwan, we ate from small bowls with chopsticks, not from plates with forks. (A & I laughed)
A: Yes, that’s a big difference.
Interviewee B:  In Chinese culture, we share dishes with everyone sitting at the table. The Westerners prefer to have their own dishes.
A: They prefer that everyone orders their own dishes and eats it separately.
B: It is individualistic. Sharing a dish with someone else is not something that would come to their mind first…… this is a cultural..uh..uh..
I: Cultural difference.
A & B: That’s right.
This conversation immediately reminded me of my experience with the opposite circumstance: seeing communal eating for the first time.  Sometime in the mid to late ’90s, a Midwestern chain restaurant called Buca di Beppo opened in the mall near my home town.   Offering “Italian Immigrant Cuisine,” the restaurant served  family-style meals: large dishes were brought to the table for everyone to share.  I remember my friends patiently explaining to me that I could not order my own, personal dish of cavatelli, that the table had to work as a whole to decide on several dishes everyone might enjoy.  As silly as it feels to me now, I know that night was the first time I had eaten out at a restaurant where the table ordered together and shared the food, as opposed to every individual ordering their own plate.  The concept was completely new to me.
Being young, I picked up on the method after the first time, and thereafter could laugh along with my friends when we told exasperated stories of how our parents and grandparents just didn’t get it.   I remember family members getting truly irritated: “But I want stuffed shells!” “Grandma, you’re going to get stuffed shells, but it’s too much for one person.  You share it with everyone.”  Many of my relations vowed never to return to that terrible restaurant, where they couldn’t order their own food.
Culinary historian Hasia Diner remarks on American eating habits in her book Hungering for America, a look at immigrant foodways in the United States.  Diner attributes the habit of eating individually to the bounty on food available in the US as compared to the relatively poor fare of the Italians.   She quotes the oral history of an Italian immigrant from the 1920s who said ” (back home) The meal was one dish, from which the entire family ate; here there is a variety of food and each person has his own plate and eating utensils.”
I believe that Buca di Beppo was the first chain restaurant to introduce communal eating to a main-stream audience.  It’s a way of dining that I still see as relatively uncommon in midwestern restaurants.  Since my teenage experience there, I’ve eaten Chinese, Indian, Greek and Ethiopian food;  styles that culturally require you to share dishes with the whole table.  Buca is not the perfect restaurant, but I do believe it gave me my training wheels to understand how other cultures eat communally.
Has anyone had a similar (or different) experience eating out?

9 thoughts on “Community Eating via Buca di Beppo

  1. I am not by nature a food sharer (in spite of my Italian-Armenian heritage), and remember my first such experience in the late 1960s in a restaurant in Cambridge MA, where everything was served family style. It was very popular with the academic and hippie crowd, but I remember thinking it was awkward, as I usually just want what I want. I may have seen that previously in a Chinese restaurant, but never in a Western place.

  2. My family would find the concept of sharing many things to be quite odd — even when we got Chinese takeout with the intention of many people eating servings from one dish, it was neatly divided on plates in the kitchen before being brought to the dining room table.

    My in-laws, on the other hand, are much more fun to eat out with. Even at “regular” restaurants where everybody gets their own entree, Grandma will invariably order a meal that she expects other people at the table to want to try. Everyone passes around samples and forkfuls of food to share. Overall, I like this method a lot, since you really can taste a much wider variety of dishes — like self-induced tapas.

  3. We didn’t eat out much when I was a kid, and nowadays when I do go out we all get our own things; but I love food and I hate to limit myself to just one thing when there are so many things I want to try (some I didn’t even know I wanted to try!), so I tend to try to eat family-style when I’m out with a group of people.

  4. Buca di Beppo, the most deliciously racist restaurant ever.

    The food there is good, but the decor and attitude says: “If we called our-self ‘Watermelon ‘n Grape soda’ we’d be shut down in a week, but for some reason Italians don’t seem to notice us”

    I recall eating family style as a kid in the 80’s, but then again we were at ACTUAL Italian restaurants, or Chinese.

    One could consider a crawfish boil, BBQ, or pile o’ crab place to be family style like, but usually it’s the only menu item so I’m not sure that counts. Same for Pizza Places.

    Also a lot of “I’m spending way too much for a steak” steak houses do family style sides don’t they? That’s been around for a while hasn’t it?

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  6. I believe if we could, our family would eat every single restaurant meal communally–that’s how much we love sharing. As it is, everyone tastes everyone else’s food unless someone has a cold. In fact, when my sister was a pre-teen, she would insist that we each had to get something different so that we could all share!

  7. I love to make certain I get something different from the people around me so I can share and try as many foods as possible. My fiancee hates it and likes his own plate of food. He’ll learn.

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