By Zach Selwyn
It was a hungover morning. Most of them are hungover mornings, but this one was particularly bad. It was actually quite unbearable. It was 91 degrees outside, but for some reason I was in a good mood based on the fact that it had finally stopped raining in Los Angeles. L.A. had been miserable lately. Not to mention depressing. My gas bill in January had skyrocketed to $1800 and wasn’t looking to get any better. A looming writer’s strike and a desolate media landscape had flattened any creative work available in the city. Shit. Even Disney had laid off 7,000 employees sine January 1st. Not only that, but the rain had destroyed nearly every road in the city and never-ending potholes greeted my car wherever I drove, resulting in more than one flat tire.
Anyway, it was a Friday morning and I had to drop my son in the deep valley for a haircut on his day off from school for “Teacher Organization Day.” I wasn’t sure when “Teacher Organization Day” became a national fucking holiday, but apparently, like four times a school year, teachers needed some time to get their shit together. I guess I understood… I need one of those days like, 25 times a month. I just didn’t particularly love when these days were thrust upon myself as a parent, because you suddenly had to do stuff like catch up on haircuts and Costco shopping and shit like going to the Grove to see films you would never pay for on your own, like Dungeons and Dragons. Meanwhile. My son prefers this one particular valley hairstylist to any scissor-slinging tattooed millennial who works at the Floyd’s Barber Shop 0.8 miles from our house, so I basically have to go 13 miles to Encino with him once every three months. And as you know Encino is a pretty miserable place.
It’s ten times worse it with a bad hangover.
After dropping him off, I had a roughly an hour to kill around the Encino corridor. Looking to curb the uneasiness of the body aches I was fighting from the night before, I Googled local bars and hotels to find any sort of affordable Bloody Mary that might help me open my eyes and face the day a little easier. Not finding much, I walked for a few minutes and quickly realized that I was surrounded by nothing but chain restaurants, weed stores and car dealerships. I was on Ventura Boulevard in Encino. I had nowhere to go. I felt like I had become the man I once swore I would never become: A 47-year-old dad, hungover in the Valley on a Friday morning looking for a drink. This wasn’t rock bottom, but Jesus, it sort of felt like the boat was sinking fast.
And then I spotted the Buca di Beppo. Yes. Buca di Beppo. Anyone who has been here knows this place is basically Olive Garden on HGH. You order a plate of spaghetti and it feeds nine people and you take four pounds home to haunt your fridge for the next month and a half. The leftovers are enough to choke an entire village of starving Albanians.
I was certainly their first customer of the day. The general manager, a goateed gentleman named Rick, who was wearing a tie patterned with a bushel of tomatoes, looked shocked that someone had actually entered the restaurant before noon. He struggled to greet me at the door. When he finally did welcome me inside, I noticed that he his shirt was untucked and one shoelace was untied. He brought me a monstrous menu and informed me that the restaurant was featuring a wine special that day: A glass of Apothic Red Wine was going for only $14.00. I thanked him but chose to not alert him that Apothic Red is a bottle of garbage wine found at Trader Joe’s for roughly $7.99.
Since the dining room was still being setup for the evening rush, I was seated in the empty bar, where half of the barstools were still turned upside down on the tables. They had sports on, so I knew I could easily kill an hour there… and I asked Rick how the Bloody Mary was.
“It’s amazing,” he said.
That was all I needed to hear.
I asked for a Bloody Mary with Tito’s and “all the fixings they could give me.”
Rick responded by asking me, “Tito’s? – OK – So Vodka or tequila?”
“Oh. So… What is that?”
“It’s a vodka from Austin, Texas dude,” I said perhaps a little too aggressively. “It’s a Bloody Mary.”
That was my first warning. I should’ve walked out then. This guy did not even know that Tito’s was a fucking vodka company?
I gave him a little side eye as he began working on the drink, making sure he was pouring in the right vodka, but unfortunately, he reached for a bottle of some brand called Helix. Helix Vodka? I had never even heard of that shit. But I watched as he incredulously poured it into a glass and then poured in some bullshit pre-packaged Bloody Mary mix from a plastic bottle that looked like it dressed Greek salads on its off-days. He didn’t even MIX the drink. He just dumped it in, and served it to me raw-dog, meaning it was lacking any olives, pickles, celery, salt, Tajin, fucking pepper… and flavor.
“Dude, Yo – do you guys don’t have any garnish whatsoever?” I asked.
“We have Tabasco,” he said.
“Olives?” I asked. “Maybe a peperoncini?”
“Uhm well, we have those but it means I would have to open the salad bar, which isn’t quite open yet.”
Jesus fucking Christ.
I took Rick’s bottle of Tabasco and tried to make this drink taste like… something. Anything but Clamato juice and ice. And it fell flat. This was by far the worst Bloody Mary ever served on American soil. Right there, in Encino, California precisely one week before my birthday in the good year of our lord 2023.
I sat there for a moment as Rick adjusted his tomato tie and folded napkins and I watched some NBA Playoffs highlights suffering through each and every sip of this bullshit drink. It basically tasted like water with hot sauce in it. The ice cubes were so prevalent that I surmounted that there was close to one to two ounces of liquid in the entirety of the glass. The straw was minuscule and sharp in my mouth.
And then I started looking around at the decor.
If you’ve ever been to a Buca di Beppo, you know that they fancy themselves as a classic “Family-Style Italian Restaurant.” That requires that they must decorate the walls with photos of great Italian American stalwarts of recent past, including 200 pictures of Frank Sinatra, at least 50 photos of Joe Dimaggio and a few stills from the movie Goodfellas. In fact, there was one large bar photo of Dimaggio that caught the Yankee Clipper smiling and youthful, at the peak of career, probably in the middle of a 200 hit season. He was grinning so widely, that there is no doubt he just flossed his teeth with Marilyn Monroe’s underwear. For some reason that photo made me happy. I pointed at the picture and then back to Rick, who mind you, was probably in his late 30’s to early 40’s and said, “What do you know about that guy?”
“Oh, Sinatra?” He said.
I almost went Joe Pesci on him and slapped him with his tomato tie.
“That’s NOT fucking Frank Sinatra, that’s Joe fuckin’ Dimaggio,” I said. “Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio.”
“Oh, the baseball player,” Rick responded. “Dodgers?”
Let me tell you something. If you work in a Buca di Beppo, or ANY Italian establishment that serves a version of a simple red sauce on pasta or a fucking meatball or a basket full of fucking breadsticks, you BETTER know who the fuck Joe Dimaggio is. In New York City, Rick would have been driven to the Hudson River, fitted for some cement shoes and dropped the fuck off the pier. And even the cops would have looked the other way and laughed about it at a bar later that night. But, this was Encino. And Rick was born in 1987 or so. And I was hungover. And unemployed. And bitter. So I leaned back and continued sipping the worst Bloody Mary of all time. A few sips later, I excused myself to the bathroom.
There was a photo of Kirk Gibson above the urinal.
I guess that made sense. Kirk Gibson is an LA hero and that 1988 World Series home run is one of baseball’s grandest moments, but I actually began wondering if Rick even knew who he was. When I returned to the bar, I asked him if he knew who the mustached man above the urinal was. He nodded yes.
Look. I have nothing against Buca di Beppo. In fact, I have enjoyed many fun nights at this restaurant with family and friends over the years… I’ve murdered bottles of wine and meatballs and large pasta dishes here while singing along to That’s Amore with drunk friends two tables over. But this was ridiculous. My advice is forever avoid the Bloody Mary at all costs, and certainly do not enter any Buca di Beppo before 6:30 PM on any given day. You will leave depressed, disappointed and miserable – and when you face that blazing sunlight outside it will shine in your eyes like God’s high beams, informing you that you have made yet one more mistake in your short, miserable, pathetic life.
I paid Rick the $11.00 for the drink and walked outside, heading to pick up my son from his hair appointment. I was feeling a little better, happy that I at least informed Rick who Joe DiMaggio was, and happy that I was now aware of the catastrophic flavor of Helix Vodka. I walked back up towards the salon and texted my son to see if he was done. He wrote me back pretty quickly and seemed happy with his haircut. I squinted in the sun and read his text aloud:
Dad, can we go see the Dungeons and Dragons movie?
I went back to Buca di Beppo’s and ordered another round…