Crave 10: #5 – Basi Italia

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

Dining at Basi Italia has always felt like one convivial dinner party. Intimate tables. Servers eager to fill a water or wine glass. Italian dishes full of comfort and finesse. It's just plain fun to eat, drink and socialize at this Victorian Village gem. But there was new energy this year, no doubt thanks to an experienced staff that's allowed the creative side of chef-owner John Dornback to shine.

John Dornback is at Basi Italia's patio bar tinkering with a contraption-a white plastic tube he's attempting to attach to a box. He cuts his finger, deep enough that he excuses himself to get a bandage. When he returns, pulling up a chair in the shade of the patio, the Basi chef and co-owner is all smiles. He's excited about this crude smoker he's rigging up to cold-smoke butter. Then, who knows? Maybe he'll start baking and selling bread again.

"I want to start doing some weird stuff," Dornback says. After 10 years at Basi, he's not on the line at night like he used to be. Less time in the kitchen has freed him up for more creative projects. It's given him and his equally charming wife and business partner, Trish Gentile, who's now sitting next to him, time to focus on what they do best: entertain.

Never more than a minute goes by without one of them laughing or tossing a small compliment at the other. Their warmth is infectious, and soon I'm smiling. This year, the conviviality returned to Basi Italia; the source of this hospitable vibe no doubt stemming from Dornback and Gentile. After all, they opened Basi Italia with one big dinner party in mind.

Crave: How did a former pizza carryout come to be Basi Italia?

Dornback: [This space] just screamed Italian restaurant. At that point, we were experimenting with recipes and doing a lot of entertaining at the house. We'd have friends over on Sunday night and prepare different types of food. We started to create this community atmosphere within our own dining room.

It was true to our principles and the style of food we liked-a loud room with lots of people talking about wonderful things and eating and drinking; taking a minute to shut out the outside world. Then we stumbled on [this space] and I started slinging a sledgehammer …

Gentile: It needed to change. It had a nautical theme. We actually envisioned it as more of a neighborhood place. We really didn't think it was going to be a citywide phenomenon. By the second week, I drove up and all these people were inside. I walked in and I immediately started drying glasses because it was like, "OK, we're going!"

Crave: You had good reviews from the start.

Dornback: We didn't expect it. Our friend, the Grumpy Gourmet (aka Doral Chenoweth, the legendary former Dispatch food writer), really enlightened us about the long-term picture-not to get caught up in the short term; keep your eye on what you believe in. We tried to do food that was going to be accessible and understandable. We wanted to support fresh and local, all those things that are buzz words now. There was just an honesty about what we wanted to do.

Crave: How do you keep the energy up?

Dornback: I think it's a culmination of a lot of good will and spirit on our part, and people who make it work for us and push this kind of attitude that, while you're here, just enjoy the ride. The New York market was pretty aggressive. I'm not saying it was bad, but there was a lot of yelling. It was not a happy place to work. I always hoped I could land somewhere where you could get all that done with commitment, without intimidation. People don't want to eat angry food, and people don't want to work in angry places.

Gentile: Kitchens are stressful places. People are burning themselves and there's a lot of movement going on.

Dornback: We just sort of instilled the importance of every person whether it was a dishwasher or busboy or cooks. There's no reason why you can't work hard and have fun working hard. If you're under constraints, you can't think in a creative manner.

Gentile: We work our tails off and we play really hard.

Dornback: It's who we are.

Crave: The dinner parties make more sense now.

Gentile: (laughs) I remember, if the garage doors were open, it meant come on over. We'd just start pulling things out and making things. It was sometimes planned and sometimes off the cuff.

Dornback: A lot of it was off the cuff.

Gentile: My family's Italian and we had these very special meatballs that I grew up with that had raisins and pine nuts and green peppers and onions. And Johnny just started deconstructing it into a sauce. Now it's our salumeria sauce.

Dornback: We did the zucchini [pronto] and [mustard-crusted golden] trout at the house. It was fun and everybody was having a good time.

Gentile: When we opened, I had this silly idea that all of our friends will be here every night. Then you and I will be able to have dinner. And that's never happened.

Dornback: But the idea that other people were doing it, that's comforting in itself; that we were able to create a space that took people on that journey where they could just chill. We want to say hi to everybody. We want you to feel like family. … Through the years, we've had so many people get engaged here or go on a first date and then come back. There've just been so many events. We like to celebrate that with them.

Gentile: One of our wine reps met his now-wife and mother of two kids here. So Basi has two kids.

Dornback: That's a great point. We've kept real close relationships with all our purveyors. I still buy from the same people we did 10 years ago. We've been very loyal. We buy on relationship and we operate on relationship. We want to extend a piece of ourselves to our customers.

Crave: It's hard to get that feeling across, especially after 10 years.

Dornback: You sort of have to evolve and that's what we've done. Somehow I always thought that it was a combination of the aesthetics of the place, great food and pair that with a customer's experience and it's the trinity.

"I come to work every day hoping to learn one more thing."

-John Dornback