By Craig SailorThe News Tribune
“Authentic” is a word thrown around the foreign restaurant scene with abandon. It lures diners in with the promise of being transported to a faraway land where they rub elbows with locals fresh from a National Geographic photo shoot.
But too much authentic and diners flee for the Americanized safety of Olive Garden and Panda Express.
Authentic, however, is what Olympia’s Basilico Ristorante Italiano is – with just a couple of additions. Basilico’s menu, designed by chef and owner Arlindo Campello, is based on northern Italian cuisine – meaning less garlic and a more balanced flavor palette. And at the center of this Milan-centric eatery is succulent house-made pasta.
A smartly appointed space greets customers at the Capitol Way location. One corner is devoted to a large wine rack. A bar takes up a lot of room, and on the Friday night we were there, it was underused. Arlindo, his wife, Silvia, along with Arlindo’s son Sid, came to America in 2002 to start an Italian wine importing business. Three years later, they ditched that business for the restaurant world.
When I had a phone conversation with Silvia and Sid last week, Arlindo was out of town. Silvia says simply of her husband: “He loves to cook. He loves food. He loves wine.”
Arlindo created the menu, but Jennifer Nelson cooks on a daily basis.
Sid says his father’s philosophy is to replicate the simplicity of Italian food. “Italian cuisine is very simple. Just bring out the flavor of what it is. If you try to complicate it too much, you’re going away from Italy and toward French.”
Our dinner began when steaming hot and hearty bread with a thin but firm crust was delivered to our table. It was accompanied by a garbanzo bean spread surrounded by a pool of extra virgin olive oil. The spread, with a touch of garlic and rosemary oil, was a welcome alternative to the standard bread and butter. Silvia says the recipe is from Calabria, and she speculates it has Greek influence.
No two antipasto plates (or charcuterie, etc.) ever seem to be alike. Basilico’s Affettati e Formaggi ($15.95) was a selection of cured meets and cheeses, all imported from Italy. The selection varies, but it usually contains prosciutto, salami, coppa and bresaola and dry cheeses grana, parmesan and pecorino. I tend to like a few items from column C (olives, pate, peppers, etc.) on my Italian appetizer plates, but hey, I’m American and that’s what I’ve come to expect. Basilico’s selection was varied (at least with the meats, not so much with the cheese) and brought flavors to the table I’ve never had before.
Another appetizer, Funghi di Stagione ($10.95), had our table swooning over fresh fall mushrooms on bruschetta, liberally doused in a brandy cream sauce. It proved to be more popular than the Affettati plate. Chantrelles, portobellos, lobster, and crimini mushrooms took fall straight from the forests and into our mouths. Even at Italian restaurants, pasta is not my go-to choice. There’s a dispiriting similarity to it, dish to dish, restaurant to restaurant. That philosophy was a tactical error at Basilico, where my party ordered only one pasta dish. Sid is the pasta maker, using flour imported from Italy. He makes tagliolini, tagliatelle, strozzapreti, ravioli (three types), pappardelle, fettuccine and lasagna. Ravioli di ricotta e spinaci ($18.95) was the dish we tried: ravioli stuffed with spinach, ricotta and parmesan cheeses. The mixture had a pesto green brightness to it, but it was the pasta that impressed us. The circular pillow of stuffing rested in an oversized square of pasta, like a flying saucer with wings. It was on a level like I’ve never had before: a chewy bite but still tender without that typical al dente feel that dry pasta has. Crispy sage leaves imparted a subtle California/Mediterranean flavor.
An order of the rabbit cacciatore ($25.95) brought a roasted rabbit in a pool of red sauce punctuated by olives. The presentation also had perfectly roasted juicy and sweet peppers and somewhat dry roasted potatoes. The sauce was verging on too salty, but the acid level of the tomato sauce and the astringent olives nicely completed the meat.
Costolete di agnello al rosmarino – also known as rack of lamb ($25.95) – is marinated in rosemary, olive oil and garlic before being put on the grill. Served over roasted asparagus spears and potatoes, it was a simple and hearty dish.
The chicken scallopini ($19.95) was our least favorite choice of the evening. I’m not a scallopini eater and perhaps this is one of the best examples of the dish going. But I found it dry, overly breaded and unappetizingly flat. Despite that, Sid says, “It’s one of our most popular dishes.” It was accompanied by a satisfying mushroom side dish that was similar to the appetizer.
And what about those nods to the American palate? Yup, it’s the chicken scallopini, Sid and Silvia say. “We stayed more than two years without chicken on the menu,” Sid said, adding that chicken is not a meat you would see on restaurant menus in northern Italy. But demand from customers added it – and lasagna (which is made as traditional as possible, they say).
So what’s missing from the menu? Risotto, said Sid. It just takes too long to cook. Americans don’t want to wait 20-25 minutes for their dinner, he said.
Like the rest of the menu, the desserts are made from scratch (with the exception of gelato). The Zabaione semifreddo con nocciola ($6.95) was more of a zabaione-flavored semifreddo – a frozen mousse. The panna cotta con frutti di bosco ($5.95) had mixed berries over a velvety smooth custard. Our spoons fought each other for the last helping. Mousse di cioccolato ($7.95) had a Mexican flavor with its cinnamon and chili pepper notes. It’s also easy on the eyes – frozen triangles tilted against each other over swirls of chocolate and bright red glaze.
Basilico’s wines come almost entirely from Italy, and mainly from the Tuscany region. Seven reds and four whites are offered by the glass and 65 by the bottle. Italian wines tend to have more of a bite, Sid said, with more tannins and a stronger aftertaste, which is what makes them good for Italian food. “You need a wine strong enough to clean the palate.” Service was like being hosted by your Italian relatives – whether you’re Italian or not. Both Silvia and Sid made trips to our table to offer help with wine pairings and food selections.
Where: 507 Capitol Way S., OlympiaContact: 360-570-8777 www.ristorantebasilico.comHours: 5-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Craig Sailor: firstname.lastname@example.org