About halfway through our dinner at La Buco di Marco, “Welcome to the Jungle” came on the radio. It was the right song at the right time. The restaurant, at that moment, was starting to feel a little wild.
By that point in the evening, our food had come out in fits and spurts; as far as we could tell, one of our dishes had been rung in incorrectly, which threw the whole meal into a tailspin. The restaurant, which sits in a cute space on a Butchers Hill corner, is small and cozy, so we couldn’t help but overhear the waitress and waiter on duty arguing over the mix-up at our table (and possibly other issues, too). At one point, someone from the kitchen came out to the bar area and joined the fray.
Based on our eavesdropping, their hearts seemed to be in the right place. They wanted us to have a good meal. When they spoke with us, they were calm and friendly. But the public (and enduring) nature of their disagreement, set to a steady soundtrack of classic rock, from Axl to Ozzy, made for a meal that was less than relaxing.
La Buco is the new iteration of the neighborhood restaurant Butchers Hill Society. Early this year, chef Marco Spina took over the kitchen, and this spring, the restaurant’s name officially changed.
Despite the service issues, La Buco has some redeeming qualities, including a space that’s packed with charm, from the long bar to the posters touting local events to the tables made from antique sewing machine bases.
Its pizza is another highlight. We tried–and loved–a pie topped with salami and mushrooms. The sauce did justice to summer tomatoes, balancing sweetness with acidity. The toppings were plentiful and the crust, thin but chewy, with just a bit of char, was terrific.
The pizza, which was meant to be one of the entrees, arrived at our table first, before our arancini appetizer. Instead of the handful of small stuffed rice balls we expected, La Buco’s arancini is one big rice ball, filled with bolognese and mozzarella, coated with crispy bread crumbs, and served with marinara sauce.
It’s a fun presentation and a well-executed, appealing dish to share, though when we tasted the marina on its own, we thought it needed more salt to counteract its acidity.
Our reaction to the Bolognese, which we tried over rigatoni, was similar. The meat sauce had a welcome herbaceousness, but was also underseasoned.
A third entrée–a special of lamb chops with balsamic glaze and spinach–was well-seasoned, but inconsistent. Some of the chops were superb: tender and cooked to medium rare with a sprinkle of balsamic adding nice contrast to their savory flavor.
Another chop, however, was undercooked. Yet another had been doused in too much balsamic, so the sauce overpowered the meat.
Desserts were also hit or miss. We liked the tiramisu, a pretty pile of coffee-scented pastry and cream. Theoretically, a Nutella-stuffed pastry, made with pizza dough and topped with strawberries, sounds great, but in practice, the pastry was too thick, so the outside was charred nearly black, while the inside was a smidge underdone. We could’ve used a few more of the promised strawberries, too; the dish came with just one, which wasn’t enough to balance the loads of melted Nutella on the plate.
La Buca’s wine list is abbreviated but smart; during a meal like ours, with nothing going exactly as it should be, a couple good glasses of wine could be a saving grace.
Unfortunately, there were glitches there, too. One glass of prosecco was filled nearly to the brim (a welcome sight), and the waiter let us know he’d given us a heavy pour. Unfortunately, the wine seemed to be from a bottle that had been open for at least a day; compared to our second glass, it was almost completely flat.
The 2015 All’Omo II Sangiovese was another puzzle. Our first glass was gorgeous: sophisticated, intense and truly impressive–one of the best glasses of wine we’ve had in awhile. The glass was a small one, but the wine was good enough that even a scant pour was worth the $12.
The second glass was decent, but tasted fruitier and younger, and was a darker purple hue compared to the mellow burgundy of the first glass. We didn’t sip them side by side, but they did not seem to be the same wine.
The meal closed with the mystery of the changing wine and an apology from the waiter for the screwups with our meal’s timing. We appreciated his words but were slightly surprised he didn’t offer a comped dessert or glass of wine, which is often how restaurants handle those situations with grace. Ultimately, we left feeling perplexed and a little defeated.
In the decade-plus that I’ve written about Baltimore restaurants, I’ve become increasingly sympathetic to their owners and managers. It’s a tough and unpredictable business with low margins and a boatload of staffing challenges. Our meal at La Buco was fraught with problems, but that doesn’t mean the restaurant doesn’t have potential.
If I were at the helm, I’d tweak a few things, starting with the salt in the sauces, as well as the size of the pours from the bar, and–most importantly–I’d invest in a seasoned restaurant manager to run the front of house.
The meal wasn’t perfect, but a smart manager would have easily made things right–and kept the rest of the staff from yelling at each other in public.
La Buco di Marco. 32 N. Chester St., Baltimore, (443) 453-9716, facebook.com/LaBucaDiMarco
Final Grade: C-
Bottom Line: La Buco di Marco has the potential to be a charming Italian addition to the Butchers Hill neighborhood; its pizza is especially appealing. But to flourish, the restaurant needs some fine-tuning across areas, from the bar to the kitchen to the wait staff.