Step into Basilico in Millburn on a weekend night, and you could easily presume it’s the hot new place in town. People with and without reservations crowd around the maitre d’ stand. The 90-seat dining room looks and feels utterly of the moment, with a mezzanine backing the long, cabernet-colored space and artful graphics projected onto the exposed brick.
Basilico, of course, is anything but a trendy newcomer. Little has changed since 1999, when Mario DeMarco, a hotel-school grad from Liguria, Italy, and a partner opened the restaurant with Claude Browne as chef. DeMarco’s partner left in 2012, but Browne, 54, a French-trained cook from Antigua, is still the chef, turning out generally solid and delicious dishes. “If you told me I’d be cooking Italian food for Mario 25 years later,” says Browne, “I never would have believed it.”
On a busy Saturday night, it took 20 minutes for someone to take our coats as we waited for our reserved table and about as long for someone to take our order. But when we were finally seated, compensation arrived in the form of the bounteous bread basket every table receives. It included house-made rosemary focaccia, raisin-walnut bread and a trio of spreads: chick-pea, sweet butter and sun-dried-tomato.
For starters, a cozy pot of Tuscan ribollita stew delivered big satisfaction, its vegetable-rich broth thickened with puréed cannellini beans instead of the traditional chunks of bread. A brimming bowl of Long Island littlenecks mingled their briny sweetness with a vibrant, just-spicy-enough green sauce.
Carpaccio doesn’t get sexier or more supple than DeMarco’s lace-thin circles of ruby-red Kobe beef showered with arugula and a gentle goat-cheese-and-apple vinaigrette. An order of baby artichokes (imported from Italy, already marinated) picked up personality with crisping on the grill, avocado chunks and a refreshing lemon-and-olive-oil dressing.
A similar vinaigrette, though, didn’t add quite enough zing to baby octopus, though the nubs were so silken and expertly charred they were a delight nonetheless. With so many strong starters, you can bypass the giardiniera salad, a jumble of canned palm hearts, marinated artichokes, avocado and more.
Choosing from the copious list of pastas and mains can be daunting. DeMarco’s top-selling spinach lasagna and pappardelle Bolognese (both featuring house-made noodles) are winning bets. Even better was house-made porcini ravioli bathed in a crazily rich walnut-white-truffle cream sauce that had us giddily scraping the plate clean.
True to the recipe DeMarco learned in Liguria, spicy spaghettini all’ Arrabbiata had no hint of tomato; unfortunately, the combo of anchovies, olives and perhaps too much added salt made it a sodium assault. Somewhat disappointing, too, was the gran cartoccio di mare, a classic dish of seafood and pasta baked in a foil pouch. This cartoccio arrived looking and tasting somewhat like reheated leftovers.
Excellent entrées included tender veal osso buco, which we devoured. A Black Angus steak arrived medium rare, as ordered, perfectly charred, with hunks of portobello mushrooms bobbing in its robust red-wine reduction. Juicy, flavorful roasted organic chicken kept company with an irresistible slice of sweet potato gratin. Overcooking, though, produced a dry double-cut veal chop, a sin almost absolved by the fabulously funky black-truffle reduction.
As for fish, some simple tweaks would help. Like more oomph in a parsley sauce that didn’t quite tie together a Mediterranean sea bass with its cherry tomatoes and black olives. And a fresher tasting crab filling for the delicate bronzino filet.
In-house pastry chef Donna Sardella, who earned her stripes at Le Cirque, churns out Instagram-worthy desserts. In some cases, the visual hoopla overpromised: A chocolate chip cannoli cake was pasty and bland. An overly large, yet underflavored, triangular cookie teetered atop the crostata di banane, a mushy mashup of cake and cream mysteriously devoid of banana flavor. Far better was the silky, Marsala-nipped zabaglione with fresh berries; and the strawberry napoleon, boasting rustic shards of sugar-dusted puff pastry and slathers of vanilla-scented custard and whipped cream.
With business humming, DeMarco has at times toyed with opening another restaurant. “But that would probably mean running between locations and going back to 80-hour weeks,” he says. “To tell you the truth, at this point I’m happy staying right here.” Basilico’s legions of loyal customers will be glad to hear it.
- Cuisine Type:European - Italian
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Appetizers, $9-$15; pastas, $17-$30; entrées, $22-$36; desserts, $8.50-$9.50
- Ambience:Stylish and sophisticated.
- Service:Competent, if somewhat impersonal.
- Wine list:BYO, or selections from California’s Domenico Winery.