Our first trip to Basante’s was on a Saturday night, about 10 o’clock. That’s late, but it’s still regarded as prime time on a weekend night. We were the only diners there.
On our second visit, a couple of weeks later, on a Wednesday night at half-past seven, there was only one other table of four. They were just finishing up as we arrived. Talk about personal service.
The lack of business at Basante’s has to be of concern to Louis Fonseca, who, along with his wife, Michelle, is the ebullient owner. But the real losers here are Nashville diners, who often seem incapable of breaking their Houston’s-O’Charley’s-Amerigo’s-Outback routine long enough to try something a little out of the ordinary. Diners here whine and complain about having nowhere to eat in Nashville, but when the dinner bell rings, where do you find them? Waiting for a table and mediocre food at the same old chain restaurant.
For a limited time onlyif traffic doesn’t pick up soonBasante’s is offering you the chance to partake of Fonseca’s compelling need to feed you lively, fresh food, professionally served, at moderate prices in a pleasant room. And you hardly have to travel off your well-beaten path. How can you resist?
Basante’s location presents both opportunity and obstacle. It’s easy to findat the corner of 18th and West End Avenuesand easy to miss, thanks to the fact that it adjoins the Days Inn that also occupies that corner. While it is not a part of the hotel, it does share restroom facilities in the lobby, and the monstrous Days Inn sign looms over the small restaurant building below.
That hasn’t prevented a good lunchtime crowdculled from the nearby office and medical buildings within walking distancefrom sampling the midday fare. The lunch offerings include sandwiches like grilled eggplant on foccacia with roasted peppers, provolone, pesto, tomatoes, and red onions. Or a plump, marinated grilled chicken breast, also on foccacia, with provolone, pesto, and tomatoes. If you want a heartier lunch, there are nine pastas and seven entrées to choose from, most of which are repeated at dinner.
At dinner, start with the triangle of grilled roasted-pepper polenta, which is of admirable texture and flavor, enlivened by a bright pool of tomato basil coulis and accompanied by two spears of grilled Italian sausage. If you want something to pass around the table, order the generously sized antipasto platter with rolled up slices of salami, mortadella, prosciutto, and pepperoni on a pile of tender greens and topped with fresh mozzarella, diced tomatoes, and olives. It’s all drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette.
Bread comes to the table warmed, sliced, and ready for dipping in a saucer of olive oil, herbs, and grated cheese. I would hold out instead for the bruschetta, as the topping provides a better cover-up for the very ordinary bread.
Side salads are fresh and properly chilled, not frigid. Choose mixed greens or a Caesarboth were pleasant interludes between the appetizer and entrée.
Do not leave Basante’s without sampling the superb homemade gnocchi. Fonseca’s potato dumplings are just dreamy, about finger-sized, of firm yet creamy consistency. They will absolutely melt in your mouth. They come with bits of pancetta (Italian bacon) and onion in a good tomato sauce.
Other favorites from the pasta listings were the chewy penne rigate with slices of grilled chicken, ricotta cheese, pine nuts, and sun-dried tomatoes in a pesto sauce, and the angel hair pasta with garlic, basil, rock shrimp, feta, and tomato sauce. The roasted chicken and spinach lasagne is the perfect winter comfort food. Perhaps we hit the spicy seafood fettuccine on a bad night, but it was salty and fishy and went back to the kitchen nearly untouched.
Of the entrees, the overall winner was the New York strip steak, exquisitely tender, cooked to order, and with a nifty bonus of several large scampi-style shrimp.
The veal cutlets were lightly hand-breaded, then sautéed in a lemon-wine buttera delicate and well-executed dish. The veal parmigiana surprised me with its delicate flavor and tempered hand with the mozzarella cheese. The shrimp scampi was another favorite.
Of the daily specials, I wouldn’t hesitate to try any. As Fonseca said to us the first night we ate there, “Food is all about passion. If you don’t have a passion for food, you shouldn’t be in this business.”
Basante’s has a short but moderately priced wine list; all are available by the bottle or glass. Of the desserts, I was only irresistibly tempted by the banana fritters; others were more of the sweet-tooth variety, such as the creamy tiramisu and the cheesecake.
Fonseca immigrated to Nashville in late 1996 from San Francisco, where he came by the trade geneticallyhis father was banquet manager at a large hotel there. As a teenager, he began his hands-on education in the food world by becoming a busboy at Bertolucci’s. He then found himself in the right place at the right time when a kitchen worker quit and the chef asked for volunteers. “From that moment on, I knew it was what I would do. I never thought of anything else.”
Fonseca then came to Nashville intent on opening his own restaurant. He spent about a year here working in a few kitchens (Bound’ry among them) and with a few chefs (former Capitol Grille chef Willie Thomas among them), exploring the culinary landscape in Nashville. When he thought he was ready and found a location, he took the plunge.
As it turned out, the first Saturday night we arrived at Basante’s, the restaurant was already closed when we showed up. The staff was seated at a table enjoying a post-shift beverage, but Fonseca told his staff to prepare to open once again.
“What else would I do?,” he asked. “You were coming here to eat, so I had to feed you. I thought that maybe you would tell your friends, tell 10 or 20 people.”
Funny how things work out sometimes.
Basante’s is at 1800 West End Ave. (615) 320-0534. Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Closed Sunday. No smoking. All major credit cards. Valet parking.