Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks.
But first you need to tame the beast with a new chef, a new location and even a new, improved name, like that of Basil Ristorante, now occupying the former home of the Parlour, at 846 Broadway.
I first visited Basil when it was a tiny eatery named Basil Pasta Bar and tucked into a storefront ten blocks away, at 30 South Broadway ("Oodles of Noodles," January 30, 1997). By then, owner Peter Wolfgang Schlicht -- who had been an incomparable matre d' at Compari's in the DTC Sheraton before attempting his first restaurant, the short-lived Baci in Genesee Park -- had split with original Basil partner and chef Ernesto Spinelli and taken on chef Willy Busera, whose idea of gourmet cooking seemed to consist of salting the commercial soup base and throwing a lot of parsley over everything. As a result, my meals there were real dogs.
Basil Ristorante, 846 Broadway, 303-832-8009. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5-9 p.m. Monday-Sunday
The new Basil's chef, David Oliveri, displays a far more learned school of thought. The original chef at Baci, Oliveri is one of several former Baci or Compari employees who have reunited with Schlicht. Together they're working hard to make this incarnation of Basil a well-behaved restaurant, and it shows. The space is romantic and charming, the servings generous and the northern Italian and Italian-inspired dishes quite stylish.
Oliveri's use of good-quality ingredients makes all the difference. In the appetizer Caprese ($6.95), the mozzarella was wonderfully fresh, the deep-red, richly ripe tomatoes sang with flavor, and the copious amounts of chiffonade basil didn't hurt, either. More flavor arrived in the delicious but pungent baked whole garlic with crostini ($6.95), the zingy New Zealand mussels in a spicy tomato sauce ($6.95) and the rich and luxuriously sauced baked scampi portofino in Pernod ($8.95). (Finally, a place that uses the Italian word for "shrimp" without adding the word "shrimp" to the dish's name!)
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With a location that's ideal for after-work munching and gathering, Basil could use a few more noshing-type starters. Then again, this has to be the only Italian spot in town that doesn't try to cram calamari down your throat.
And for a full romantic meal, Basil is right on. The wine list is well-rounded and fairly priced, and with all the flickering lights, high-backed booths and plush entrees, amore is a complimentary side to any meal. (To get the most bang for your buck, reserve one of the two private rooms off to the side of the entrance.) But even without the romantic enhancements, our dinners were swoon-inducing. The filetto di Manzo ($22.95), a hefty slice of tenderloin that had been stuffed with Gorgonzola, pine nuts and roasted garlic, was awash in a rosemary-scented demi-glace; in the risotto al pesce ($14.95), the Arborio rice had melted into a sweet lobster cream sauce swimming with shrimp and scallops.
Not everything we sampled at Basil was superb. On one stop, a plate of gnocchi di spinaci alla Rossini ($13.95) featured spinach dumplings the texture of old glue in a way-too-heavy Gorgonzola cream sauce that tasted of nothing but roasted red peppers. And the chicken in the rigatoni sci sci ($13.95) was dry and chewy, as was the pasta. Overall, though, I'd say this Basil is a champ.
The only thing constant at Denver restaurants is change. In 2nd Helping, Kyle Wagner will occasionally return to the scene of previous reviews to find out what's now cooking in their kitchens.