It was an instant classic the day it opened. Twelve years later, Basi Italia's rustic charm keeps us coming back.
Victorian Village harbors Basi Italia like a secret. The neighborhood restaurant is the color and size of a pistachio, tucked in a quiet alley of residential garages. It's even more camouflaged in summer, when its weathered green wood shingles disappear into the canopy of leaves. If not for the white Christmas lights around the roof and valet sign propped in the road, you might think you took a wrong turn.
But plenty of people are finding it. Husband-wife owners John Dornback and Trish Gentile opened Basi in 2003 to almost instant buzz. They've been busy ever since.
Fast forward a dozen years later, and Basi is still a dorm-room-sized affair. The "office" is a writing desk that also serves as the hostess stand. The unisex loo doubles as a cookbook library. And they still don't serve espresso ("We've considered it, but we're just not built for it space-wise," Dornback said when I reached him by phone).
What they are built for is just as potent and uniquely European: regional Italian and Mediterranean cooking that's either wonderfully complex or dead simple.
Dornback is just returning to the kitchen after a complicated hip surgery took him out of commission this past winter. He's still the creative force behind Basi but has stepped back from the nightly grind. During my visits, I had some memorable dinners and some I'd rather forget. But Basi's unique atmosphere-the respect they have for their customers, for their adopted neighborhood and for the high-quality ingredients they transform into some pretty great dishes-goes a long way toward forgiving an OK dinner. It's the reason you still love independent bookstores even when they don't have the book you were looking for.
Basi isn't strictly a red-sauce joint, although the kitchen babies a fresh pomodoro sauce for signature dishes like Eggplant Parmesan ($19) and Rigatoni Salumeria ($20). The food is just as likely to be sauced by basil pesto touched with honey, thick saffron aioli like the one underneath Crispy Oysters and Roasted Fingerling Potatoes ($12), or vin cotto, an Italian condiment as dark and syrupy as slow-simmered balsamic vinegar. A primi course with domino-sized slabs of Braised Pork Belly ($10) on tender white beans and fennel would be fantastic on its own. The pool of vin cotto makes it sing.
The sweet corn mash under tender Braised Short Ribs ($25) tastes like sunshine. (And to the stranger who leaned over from the next table to praise those short ribs: Yes, I agree, they are ridiculous.)
The smell of fresh dill is the first thing you notice when a plate of Salmon Bruschetta ($9) is delivered. Despite being house-smoked, the salmon is more like flaky cold poached salmon than lox. With ripe avocado, lemon aioli and snipped chives, the thin crostini seem made for 90-degree days.
Even the house cocktails, served in big Mason jars, celebrate the season. On humid nights when red wine sounded as appealing as pulling on a wool hat, I had a wildly refreshing Cucumber Rickey ($10) with cucumber-infused vodka, lime and soda. It tasted faintly like pickles, the same way a gin and tonic evokes pine cones. The beer selection is Basi in a nutshell: Italian classic Peroni or something from local favorite Seventh Son. What else could you need?
If you want to be on Basi's no-frills patio, expect to wait. It's first-come, first-served (even a reservation won't guarantee you a seat outside). I finally nabbed a spot under the permanent awning one unseasonably cool, rainy night.
It was a Wednesday, when Basi does Vino on the Veranda. A special tasting menu of wines is offered, and a wine expert will stop by to give you the skinny on each one. As the rain plip-plopped on metal tables around us, we split a $15 flight that included a prosecco, chardonnay blend, barbera and brunello-all from Italian makers.
That night, Dornback and Gentile happened to be dining with friends at a nearby table. I've never sat with a chef directly behind me as I quietly judged his work-although while covering the film industry in the '90s, I had to stifle yawns during "The Crucible" with Winona Ryder a few rows in front of me. Thankfully, the Roasted Pistachio Flatbread ($10) was far more exciting. Slices of chewy white pizza droop from the weight of creamy ricotta and fontina. Whole toasted pistachios are scattered over the pie. Peppery arugula and a drizzle of truffle honey sends it into orbit. The only thing I had to stifle was the urge to eat the whole thing. But I wanted to save room for the Rigatoni Salumeria ($20), and I'm glad I did. Perfectly al dente pasta tubes are tossed with a deconstructed version of the Gentile family meatball: ragged chunks of sausage, golden raisins, pine nuts and a warm red chili heat.
Not all dishes were as bewitching.
I'm ducking from imaginary lightning when I say I didn't care for the popular Zucchini Pronto ($9). A mountain of pale green matchsticks are lightly sauteed, then draped with white sheets of pecorino that go as limp as boiled lasagna noodles by the time the appetizer makes it to your table. My Mustard-Crusted Golden Trout ($24) was encased in a dark, hard batter, like it had been left in the fryer too long. And the saltimbocca-inspired Prosciutto-Wrapped Scallops ($27) were just OK. I wouldn't order these dishes again, but I also wouldn't let them keep me from coming back.
Service is another big factor in Basi's longevity. The servers are serene but efficient, armed with Swiss Army-style wine openers, little notepads and an uncanny sense of when to check in and when to hang back.
And here's a refreshing novelty: You can actually have a conversation with the other people at your table, ideally over a dish of Butterscotch Budino ($10), a firm, dense custard the color of coffee ice cream. The light pudding is dotted with small almond cookies for crunch, accompanied by a dollop of fresh whipped cream with strawberries and drizzled with butterscotch sauce. It's a lovely one to share on a rainy summer night.