We started our journey across the street from the Reading Terminal Market, where we offered moral support to Rick's Steaks before settling in at the Maggiano's at 12th and Filbert.
Since the Gang is like a family, we ordered "Family Style," which entitled us to pick two appetizers, two salads, two pastas, two entrees and two desserts from a rather lengthy list of dishes.
The base price for family-style dining is $25.95 a person, but we had an additional $4 surcharge for ordering Veal Picatta as one of our entrees.
Ordering "Family Style" at Maggiano's can be a great deal if you have a tapeworm, because the happy waitstaff will bring you seconds, thirds, etc., until, like the man in "Monty Python's Meaning of Life," you simply explode. If you like normal-size portions, "Family Style" is pricier than ordering a la carte, but you do get to try a lot of dishes and bring home a lot of leftovers.
Our family-style offerings consisted of Bruschetta and Fried Calamari as appetizers. Both were very good, the calamari tender and not too greasy and the bruschetta fresh, oily and garlicky.
For salads, we chose the Chopped Salad (iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, bleu cheese, green onion, avocado, crispy prosciutto and house dressing) and the Spinach Salad (spinach, red peppers, roasted onions, gorgonzola cheese, bacon, pine nuts and pancetta dressing), which came in bowls big enough to feed all six Gangsters at dinner with two lunch meals left for the following day.
Both salads were fresh, crunchy and much lauded, with an even split as to which was better. By now the Gang was full, just in time for the heavy artillery.
Our pastas were Baked Ziti & Sausage and Chicken Pesto Linguini, and we chose the aforementioned Veal Picatta and Chicken Parmesan as entrees, although the pastas were entrees.
The meal took a bit of a dip here, with dishes that one Gang member described as banquet-hall quality. We all liked the taste of the veal dish but found the meat overcooked. The chicken parm was drier than a fine martini, as was the ziti. The linguini had crossed over from dry to mushy. Maybe that's the price of giving six people food for 10. Desserts rebounded, with a yummy Apple Crostada with Caramel Sauce and an awesome Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse.
Chain: Maggiano's, 12th and Filbert streets, 215-567-2020. Also at 205 Mall Blvd., King of Prussia, 610-992-3333.
Atmosphere: When it comes to "Big Italian," Maggiano's is the most elegant of the three and has the biggest menu. It also was not that noisy, considering the size of the dining room.
Parking: Free at K of P. Not free in Center City.
Price: Dinner for six, "Family Style," with six soft drinks, three coffees and a cappuccino was a hefty $220.10 plus tip.
Leftovers: Easily lunch for three the next day.
When you walk into Vinny T's, it seems like a place where people are having a good time. It's noisy (but not oppressively so), and there's a big, airy dining room that's a few steps up from a mess hall. Again, six of us made the trek, but we took our ordering knowledge from Maggiano's and applied it. We still ended up with a ton of food, but the wallet wasn't hit so hard.
Vinny T's also offers "Family Style" ($22.95 per person) but we went a la carte with small orders of Fried Mozzarella ($7.95), Fried Calamari ($8.95) and Rhode Island Calamari ($9.95).
The mozzarella was terrific - less a deep-fried stick than a pan-fried dumpling in a pool of marinara sauce. The calamari was also good - not too greasy - but we were partial to the Rhode Island version, which adds cherry peppers and a lemony, garlicky, buttery wine glaze.
The Famiglia Platter salad ($8.95) with a red wine vinaigrette was only adequate, its lettuce a day past its prime. The entrees were enormous and varied in quality. At the top of the list was the Chicken Carciofi (we went with the $27.95 large), chicken breast pieces with amazing artichoke hearts, mushrooms and tomatoes. It took up an entire serving tray, so its side dishes of oven-roasted potatoes and roasted vegetables got their own plates.
Another winner was the Shrimp Fra Diavolo ($17.95, small). Finally, some decently prepared linguini. Unfortunately, the shrimp were overcooked, and the slightly spicy sauce could have used a little more kick.
The Chicken and Eggplant Parmigiana ($13.95, small) was a disappointment. Vinny T's marinara almost saved the dish, but the eggplant was overcooked and the chicken was missing in action.
Spaghetti with Nana's Meat Sauce ($10.95,) was not much better. Again, the pasta had a good consistency, but Nana needs to stop talking on the stoop and get back in the kitchen. Her anemic meat sauce had chunks of ... perhaps hamburger, but little sauce. What there was had minimal contact with the spaghetti. The marinara is the way to go.
As we boxed up the remains of our dinners, we indulged in the Chocolate Bomba ($5.95) and the New York-style Cafe Latte Cheesecake ($5.95).
The Bomba was "the bomb-a," a dense yet light chocolate cake with chocolate layers. A good size for two. The espresso-flavored cheesecake was also delicious, up there with the Cheesecake Factory's. Our willpower shot by this point, one side of the table begged the other to take the desserts away.
Chain: Vinny T's, 260 E. Lancaster Ave., Wynnewood, 610-645-5400. Other locations throughout New England.
Atmosphere: Vinny T's has a clubby feel. It's an open, noisy space probably better suited to small children.
Price: Dinner for six with three appetizers, one salad for the table, three regular-size main dishes and one large main dish plus three desserts, one soft drink and seven glasses of wine came to a reasonable $177.69 plus tip.
Portions: Nobody leaves hungry.
Leftovers: At least another two meals.
Buca di Beppo
To round out our tour, we went to the Las Vegas of Big Italian, Buca di Beppo, where the kitsch is piled as high as the pasta.
This over-the-top, over-decorated restaurant, with Louis Prima and Dean Martin recordings on a seemingly endless loop and a bust of the pope in the back room, has a carnival feel from the moment you enter, and a wait staff that's as much show as tell.
The food's not bad, either.
Although the Fried Calamari ($9.99) was the greasiest of the three we tried, the Mixed Green Salad ($8.99) was crisp and fresh. A side order of spicy sausage was also better than the sausage in our dish at Maggiano's.
We went with four small main dishes at Buca, and that's plenty for six people.
The Manicotti ($14.99), was four big ricotta cheese rolls with a chopped tomato sauce. It was a little crusty around the edges (not necessarily a bad thing), but the cheese didn't dry out.
Spaghetti Marinara ($8.99) was basic - tasty and well-prepared, although we were a bit partial to Vinny T's marinara. When Buca gets fancier, trouble starts to seep in. The Veal Limone ($16.99) was a mish-mash of veal medallions, white beans, lemon wedges, tomato chunks and escarole in a lemony-butter sauce. Too many competing flavors, and the veal was tough. But it looked pretty.
The Shrimp and Scallop Orzo ($19.99) was better, although the shrimp spent too long on the grill.
Any of these dishes will feed two, and one of our smaller-portion Gangsters thought two people could share the Spaghetti Marinara and enjoy a dinner for two for under $10.
Sure, but where's your protein and your vegetable?
For dessert, the Gang dug into a messy Double Dark Chocolate Cake ($9.99), which was was moist and creamy but hard to divvy up, and the Italian-style Cheesecake with Raspberry Sauce ($8.99), which was good, but Vinny T's was better.
Chain: Buca di Beppo, 258 S. 15th St. (near Latimer), 215-545-2818. Other nearby locations at 1 W. Germantown Pike, East Norriton, 610-272-2822; 300 Main St., Exton, 610-524-9939; and 2301 Route 38, Cherry Hill, 856-779-3288.
Atmosphere: Fun. There are photos everywhere of everything Italian and faux-Italian.
Parking: Free in the 'burbs, not in Center City.
Price: Dinner for six with one appetizer, one salad for the table, one side order, four small main dishes, two desserts and four soft drinks was a very reasonable $121.90 plus tip.
Portions: Time to hit the gym.
Leftovers: Two or three more meals, with dessert.
Overall "Big Italian" grade: Each of these three-link (out of four) restaurants has a different ambience, and different strengths and weaknesses in the kitchen. But they all offer good food at good value if you order smartly. Just park far way; you'll want to walk off your meal.