It took three long years, but Buca (NASDAQ:BUCA) is finally profitable. The casual Italian dining chain came through with a fourth-quarter profit of $0.05 per share. Sales rose 14% higher to $71.5 million.

Sure, Buca had an extra week to work with this period, but comps still rose a robust 4%. Some of that gain was attributable to the company opening more of its eateries for lunch, but the company still had growth in its curbside takeout dinner business.

Picky eaters can dig into other items like a restaurant sale and a favorable settlement, but it's still a profit. You have to go all the way back to the fourth quarter of 2003 to find the last time that Buca didn't need to use the parenthesis sign at the bottom of its income statement.

The company may not necessarily stay in the black at this point. Labor costs will inch higher this year, even though the company hopes to offset that with its 2% menu price hike back in January.

Buca is not providing guidance for the quarter that ends in March, but did note during last night's call that several other Italian chains have been reporting sluggish results so far in 2007. Earlier this month, Brinker International (NYSE:EAT) posted a 4% dip in February comps at its Macaroni Grill and Maggiano's concepts. OSI (NYS: OSI) saw a 2% slide in same-store sales at its Carrabbas locations for the month.

California Pizza Kitchen (NASDAQ:CPKI) may be bucking the trend -- last month it projected a 3% to 4% comps gain for the March quarter -- but Maggiano's and Carrabbas are better fits with the Buca concept.

Analysts expect Buca to post a loss for all of 2007. Yesterday's encouraging report isn't really enough to disrupt that notion. However, initiatives like earlier operating hours and different portion sizes are significant enough to move the needle either way over the next few quarters.

Buca's still got buckets of red sauce in the kitchen, but let's hope that it uses it only sparingly on its income statement from now on.

For more the places where we love to dine, check out:

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is about a half-hour away from his nearest Buca, but he has made that trek twice in the past. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.