Restaurant review: Basi Italia

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

There is no better way to embrace summer in Columbus than by sharing a delicious plate of Zucchini Pronto on the quaint patio of Basi Italia.

Do that when Basi serves lunch - Fridays and Saturdays in the warm months - and you might hear birds chirping during a serene meal. Do it at dinnertime, when the veranda gets packed, and you can expect a festive scene. In one sense, though, the experience will be identical: you'll be celebrating the ephemeral spell of warm days with an iconic dish from an elite, local Italian restaurant.

Likely because it's tucked into a Victorian Village alleyway, often-busy Basi has maintained its "hidden gem" reputation since Chef John Dornback opened it in 2003 with wife Trish Gentile, who oversees the enticing wine list. The eatery has also maintained its tiny size.

Inside, you'll find an intimate charmer featuring earth tones, wood and handsome lighting. Outside, where trees and enveloping umbrellas shield diners from sun, rain and the residential neighborhood, you'll find room to stretch out among blooming petunias and simple-yet-elegant strings of lights. You'll also encounter the sweet, licorice-and-mint scent of basil plants announcing their presence - and the all-too-fleeting patio season.

In addition to an Italian-leaning, affordable wine selection, Basi offers refreshing cocktails such as its house-bottled, fruity-but-dry white sangria (sparkling rose, limoncello and strawberry vodka) and a Cucumber Rickey fizzing with soda and a rush of fresh lime juice ($10 each).

The latter is a fine partner for the lemon-splashed Zucchini Pronto ($8; $7 at lunch) - a texturally dynamic pyramid of warm, flash-sauteed zucchini matchsticks and toasted almond slivers draped in wilting pecorino cheese slices. Bright, fresh and light, but with rich and salty accents, the meatless little tower has become a Columbus classic for good reason.

Basi's hearty Maple-Braised Pork Belly ($10) is another big first course that coaxes sophistication out of modest ingredients - in this case, pork and beans. Slabs of crisp-edged, tender meat crown a bed of firm-yet-creamy cannellini beans, with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, diced cooked green apples, sprout tendrils and fresh pesto completing the dish. Typical of Basi's stylishly plated offerings, the embellishments are abundant, but used to harmonize with the main components.

Fragrant pesto pops up again on the pasta opposite Basi's popular Eggplant Parmesan ($18; $13 at lunch). Lively crushed-tomato sauce, restrained amounts of high-quality cheese plus a crisp batter encasing non-bitter eggplant help the ubiquitous, crowd-pleasing meal transcend cliché status.

A dressed-up presentation showcasing large, neatly cut blocks of grill-marked beef - instead of the usual, pot-roast-like mass - lends distinction to the luscious Braised Short Ribs ($23). Additionally uplifting this enormous winner: chive oil, vinegar, watercress and Basi's zingy espresso barbecue sauce (I tasted more mustard than coffee) playing off a comforting base of sweet, mashed corn.

For something considerably lighter, try the Pan-Seared Red Snapper ($23) - flaky pieces of impressively sweet fish with garlic, butter, fingerling potatoes and asparagus spears bearing thick-but-not-woody stems. Because drips of pulpy, slightly bitter orange vinaigrette on the plate contained more basil, I almost started calling this restaurant "Basil Italia," but the livening herb is seasonal, so I fought that off.

A fabulous $13 lunch special starred another seasonal ingredient: soft-shell crab. The crackly battered whole crustacean rested atop addictive "corn cream" (similar to polenta) populated by fresh, firm peas and heirloom tomatoes that tasted as if they came from a garden in August. The entree could be called "summer in a bowl."

I wanted to linger on Basi's patio, so I treated myself to Butterscotch Budino ($8). It's a terrific dessert - smooth, dense pudding served with delicate amaretti cookies and whipped cream so light it practically evaporates before your eyes.

Basi Italia

811 Highland St.,

Victorian Village