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Bubbling hot

If you want to have a quiet, relaxed Italian dinner for two, stay clear of the new Maitland mecca Buca di Beppo – but I mean that in a good way.

Only one month after opening on the former Bubble Room site, Buca di Beppo is a neighborhood magnet. Few people know that the name loosely translates as Joe's Basement, but they quickly understand the eatery's eclectic nature: bright and busy, bustling with an army of waiters.

One oddity is that everyone who enters Buca di Beppo is marched through the kitchen, where a tag team of chefs is in constant motion. The dining area is busy in a different way. Much like the Bubble Room before it, every inch is garishly festooned with Christmas lights and souvenirs, including a reproduction of the Mona Lisa in neon curlers.

Visitors are encouraged to roam around the dining room to check out the billboard-style menus. (Regular ones are provided as well.) Also like the Bubble Room, be careful not to over order. The kitchen turns out pizzas as big as counter tops and meatballs the size of baseballs. We ordered an appetizer, two dinners and dessert, and ended up carting leftovers home in a grocery sack with handles. "Thank you for shopping with us," manager Tim Dean sometimes says as the full waddle out.

Bruschetta ($6.95) is a fine meal-starter, created from a loaf of country bread sliced in half and broiled with garlic vinaigrette. The bread has a puffy, crispy, oily quality that is tantalizing, especially when topped with the lush mixture of tomatoes and red onions.

Nine-layer lasagna is such a big deal to prepare that it's presented as a special event every week or two. (It's worth calling ahead to time a visit accordingly.) At $21.95 and nearly a foot in length, the Buca version sizzles with secret seasonings in the marinara and is loaded with meat, ricotta and provolone cheeses; super-fresh basil adds further appeal.

One of the favorite pizzas is the "arrabbiata" ($18.95), featuring a 2-foot-long cracker crust brushed with spicy oil, topped with thick slices of tangy fennel sausage, pepperoni and caramelized onions.

They were out of the "Buca bread pudding caramello" ($8.95), studded with chocolate chips, raisins and cinnamon cream, and smothered with caramel sauce. So we diverted our attention to a trio of "chocolate cannoli" ($8.95) packed with chocolate chips and candied pistachio nuts, and served in a puddle of chocolate-licorice sauce.

For now, Buca di Beppo is open only for dinner. On weekends, reservations are not just a good idea, they're essential – unless you don't mind spending an hour or two in the equally animated bar.

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