Basta, New Haven
At Basta, zuppa di pesce is a tasty conglomeration of tiger shrimp, Prince Edward Island mussels, Manilla clams, sea scallops and calamari.
Basta ★★★ (Superior)
Basta is right around the corner from Claire’s Corner Copia. That’s all the directions you’re likely to need in New Haven, where Claire’s has long been an institution. Remove it and the corner of Chapel and College might cave in. Claire Criscuolo, who was doing green when it was still just a color, pioneered the idea that a health-food hangout can be fun, especially when its vegetarian fare is augmented with to-die-for goodies like Lithuanian coffee cake. Claire and her husband, Frank, both chefs, could have rested on those laurels, but Frank (along with a fair number of Corner Copia fans) occasionally hankered for lustier fare—bistecca funghetti, Sicilian-style sea bass, pollo alla cacciatore, not to mention Anonna’s meatballs. Frank also collected interesting wines from boutique vineyards in Italy that he was eager to share. So the idea of opening a second restaurant was born.
But it was just an idea until a storefront around the corner became available.
“It’s too small,“ said Frank.
“It’s enough,” said Claire.
Not much room for the kitchen.
Where will we put the freezer?
We don’t need one. We’ll buy everything fresh.
So Basta was born and christened with the Italian word for “enough.” Close enough to walk to from the Yale Rep, Yale Art Gallery and The Yale Center for British Art, Basta supports the arts with exuberantly delicious Southern Italian food made almost exclusively with sustainable, organic, wild-caught, free-range and artisanal ingredients.
The first “small plates” listed on the menu, ricotta calde and ricotta di’natale, are delectable examples. Both feature locally made, hand-packed ricotta—mild, tender, less salty and much fresher-tasting than the commercially produced machine-packaged stuff in plastic tubs at the supermarket. Basta’s ricotta calda is a colorful floating-island sort of dish with dollops of cheese in a pool of warm tomato sauce. Served with garlic-rubbed crostini, there’s enough to share. The ricotta di’natale turns up in print a lot, probably because it sounds so good, which it is, but as an appetizer it really doesn’t work. Topped with toasted shaved almonds and dried cranberries and drizzled with lemon-rosemary local honey, it’s far too sweet. I think one should order it for dessert because (jumping ahead a bit) the dessert list is very short, at least the night we visited, and very rich.
Of course, we had to have meatballs, which the menu said were “just like Anonna made.” Family references always intrigue. But I thought the Italian word for grandma was nonna. When I asked our waitress, she said, “It’s dialect” with such assurance I had to believe, especially after tasting the meatballs, which were tender and tasty with a bit of Pecorino Romano cheese mixed in. They were served in “a sea of our warm San Marzano tomato sauce.” The menu gets a bit flowery at times, but San Marzano tomatoes are worth mentioning because many chefs consider these distinctive-tasting, thin, pointy plum tomatoes the best sauce tomatoes in the world.
Although the bread on the table was wonderful, we could not resist ordering arugula bruschetta when we saw a plate of it going by. It was as good as it looked—house-made crostone, wood-oven-charred, topped with a pile of baby arugula almost four inches high, glistening with olive oil, spiked with a squeeze of fresh lemon and sprinkled with Sicilian sea salt. Nothing fancy, just exceptionally fine ingredients.
Eighteen other piccoli piatti were listed. None that we tried or saw were small. You might want to share or order less if you plan to have a second course.
We went on to sample pasta, meat, fish and shellfish. I ordered spinach fettuccine because the folks at the next table did and just looking at it made my mouth water. I was not misled. This spinach fettucine was as good as, if not better than, any I’ve had in Rome—tender but slightly al dente ribbons of pasta bathed in a luscious sauce of baby spinach, shallots, sausage, white wine and cream.
Sicilian-style sea bass was appealing, too, a sweet little fish, oven-roasted and served whole in a sauce of chopped tomatoes, black olives, capers and a notable amount of fresh, especially tasty parsley. On a cold day, it tasted like the sunny South of Italy.
Zuppa di pesce, the most expensive item on the menu ($28), was copious and variegated with tiger shrimp, Prince Edward Island mussels, Manilla clams, sea scallops and calamari, but the sauce was rather bland and the tiny clams and mussels were a bit overcooked. Not bad, but not the star of the show.
That honor clearly belonged to a char-grilled Black Angus steak, a huge hunk of gloriously tender meat heaped with sautéed organic mushrooms luxuriating in the world’s richest cream sauce, spiked with Marsala and finished with truffle oil. Wow! Finish it? No way, but it made a lovely lunch the next day.
At this point we had no room for dessert, and anyway the kitchen was out of everything but crème brûlée and tiramisu. The crème brûlée was alluringly creamy under an impeccably crackly-burnt sugar crust. The tiramisu was so dense and rich we swore we could manage only a nibble, but somehow there wasn’t a bite left to take away.
Basta is a bit like that. It’s hard to resist.Not a trip to a famous restaurant in Rome, it’s more like visiting Anonna in her home on a feast day. Christmas, perhaps?
1006 Chapel St., New Haven (203/772-1715)
Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 9:30, Friday and Saturday till 11, Sunday 1 to 9:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $8 to $17, entrées $14 to $28, desserts $8.