Just Like Nonna’s

The simple elegance of Basilico.

We visit Basilico (corner of Nguyen Du and Le Van Huu, D1) on a cold, overcast Sunday night, floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on whipping raincoats and pounding rain. Inside, though, the mood is decidedly warm, fueled by a roaring wood-burning pizza oven set into a rough stone feature wall.

Managed by the InterContinental Asiana Saigon, Basilico feels unlike your typical hotel restaurant. Yes, there’s the efficient wait staff clad in all black and its location near the entrance of the InterContinental Asiana Saigon Residences, but the vibe is very much laid back and welcoming. This Sunday sees the dozen or so tables inside Basilico’s main dining area (think casual contemporary) completely full, with diners also seated in the covered outdoor terrace and spilling out onto the smattering of tables set in the atrium shared with the residential tower.

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If you’re hoping for a clichéd Italian dining experience, you’ll find it in the requisite red checkered tablecloths and the hanging cured meats with accompanying garlands of knotted garlic, but there is a fine line between cliché and authentic and thankfully Basilico’s fare squarely falls on the side of the latter. The one page menu is mercifully simple and focuses on the classics, from homemade fettuccine and wood-fired pizzas to traditional osso buco and oven-baked branzino. “My personal philosophy is a bit old style and absolutely traditional. While we follow new trends in healthy cooking and techniques like sous-vide and cooking at low temperatures, I’m actually a bit against innovation. I want to keep Italian food the way it’s done by Italian grandmothers without any fusion or adaptation to the North American or local palate,” says Executive Chef Roberto Mancini who himself hails from Rome. “Italian cuisine is based on not much elaboration. The key is to showcase top quality ingredients.”

Delizioso!

For the appetizer, we order the Antipasto Misto Basilico (VND298,000), an unexpectedly generous selection of olives, Parmigiano cheese and a bevy of cured meats, including a standout home cured salmon with orange and dill that balances perfectly with peppery sprigs of arugula. The dish is thoughtfully presented on a wood board, cheekily pedestaled using cans of tomato sauce, but paired with a complimentary selection of homemade crostini with a smooth yellow zucchini dip and shaved Parma ham, and certainly shareable between a small table.

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For our mains, we order one dish each from the pasta, meat and fish menu. The seafood linguini (linguini allo scoglio, VND215,000), traditionally a hodgepodge of whatever is freshest at the fish monger’s that day, features a huge freshwater shrimp, beautifully presented in shell, as if guarding what turns out to be a wonderfully (and surprisingly) spicy dish, tossed in a flavorful, thick to the point of being almost gritty, tomato-based sauce. I found the osso buco (ossobuco di vitella, VND365,000) well braised in a modern red wine and tomato sauce, and set on a fragrant bed of saffron risotto, tender but not mushy. Our fish course was a rustic and again, generously sized, branzino (European sea bass), oven-baked with a white wine sauce and served atop crunchy sautéed spinach with slices of baby potatoes which provided textural contrast to the flaky, meaty fish.

By meal’s end, we were so full that we managed to try only one dessert amongst the beckoning tiramisus, panna cottas and crème brûlées. Considering the cold-for-Saigon weather and the festive time of year, we went off-menu (but always available) with a whole wine-poached pear over almond chocolate cake (VND125,000). It turned out to be the perfect end to the evening, the pear evenly poached in a fragrant cinnamon and star anise spiced red wine, atop a decadent yet light bitter chocolate cake to offset the sweetness of the reduction of the red wine poaching liquid.

The decor is eclectic, vacillating between a casual trattoria and a trendy eatery, with the soundtrack alternating between opera and jazz, and the food is confidently authentic, serving up generous portions of Italian classics with premium ingredients in a friendly, cozy space. This is one restaurant which feels like home.

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