In a college town, serving spaghetti and meatballs to carousing students is a solid business plan. It doesn't have to be high art. Nonetheless, I was hopeful that Enzo Amodeo's new Bucatini Trattoria in Middleton might be a step up from the plate-o'-bland-pasta approach.
Carrying that hope in was a mistake. Your best bet is to carry out pizza; or if, dining in, set your expectations to "cheap noshing." Amodeo, who began the "Tutto Pasta" empire (but now owns just Bucatini and the Middleton Tutto Pasta) has replicated his formula, with a few tweaks and slightly higher prices, for export to Greenway Station, filling the space vacated by Macaroni Grill.
Things started off well enough on our first visit. A solid granite wraparound bar anchors the room, drawing the eye away from flat-screen televisions, prints of chefs in puffy hats, realistic-looking brick faades and bowls of plastic fruit - it's Tuscany by way of Pottery Barn. A smiling manager escorted us to our table, and a carafe of water with ice-filled glasses was immediately provided.
The best of the appetizers we sampled came first: the Insalata Caprese, mozzarella served with sliced tomatoes. The brick oven pizzas were decent as well, if unexceptional. We tried two, the thin-crust Pizza Siciliana with tiny flecks of sausage and the Pizza Quattro Sapori with artichoke hearts, ham and mushrooms.
But soon enough, the wobbliness set in. The Lattughette di Campo salad was like an imitation of a recipe. Tossed mixed baby greens, bacon, corn, mozzarella and Parmesan dressing felt more like a mix of ingredients than a cohesive dish. I declined the freshly grated pepper to my later chagrin; the salad was oddly lifeless.
Penne Saracena, fennel-imbued sausage pasta with mushrooms, white wine, sweet bell peppers and a sugary marinara, was too bland to be impressive, again inadequately seasoned. Billed as pork tenderloin medallions, a plate of Medaglioni Di Arista turned out to be slices of prosciutto cooked onto pork chops and smothered in a gooey sauce. A red wine reduction rendered the plate weird, with purple smears. The only thing I could eat more than a few bites of was the "little ears" pasta Alfredo.
Linguine Alle Vongole Veraci was by far the best of the dishes we sampled. Spaghetti sautéed with manila clams on the shell and baby clams in a white wine and butter sauce was rich, satisfying and flavorful. The kitchen deserves accolades here.
Another thing Bucatini does right is balancing cost against portions: Meals are cheap by the ounce. Therefore it's a good destination for a casual outing with family, especially one with young children, who may not care so much about the quality of the ingredients. Kids will enjoy the pizza and pastas, and a good strategy might be to order for the table, then spoon out portions. Or so we thought.
Sadly, you won't get side plates, even if you ask - you get to use tiny bread plates instead. That might be fine if you have them. On one visit we didn't, receiving only two bread plates, two sets of silverware and two napkins. For four people. Complicating matters, I tried to dish out pasta, but without any kind of spoon I quickly ran into trouble.
Other servers were better; indeed, a spiky-haired young hipster was excellent on a lunch visit, anticipating needs and expediting the small order ahead of a party of 10 in his section. But on a third visit we experienced a series of off-kilter interactions, including smothering coverage, an offer to try "Coke products," an olive oil pour into a bread plate that had to have been four fluid ounces and excessive attempted up-sells ("Salad with that? Soup? How about you, sir? Salad? Soup?"). Sometimes you get bread refills, sometimes you are offered ground pepper, sometimes olive oil, sometimes grated Parmesan, sometimes none of the above.
For high-quality Italian-American food served by seasoned professionals, go to Greenbush Bar or Lombardino's. If you are looking to improve slightly on Tutto Pasta, you can get a relatively inexpensive, filling meal in a casual atmosphere at Bucatini. "Better than Olive Garden" is, actually, sort of a compelling pitch.
1611 Deming Way, Middleton, 608-824-0004
$7-$23. 11 am-11 pm Fri.-Sat., 11 am-10 pm Sun.-Thurs.
Accessible, credit cards, alcohol, bar, kids' menu, carryout.