Review: Basso in Richmond Heights

BASSO, 7036 Clayton Ave., Richmond Heights, 314.932.7820,

Wood-fired pizzas and bowls of steaming house-made pasta reinforce pseudo Italian-style cocktails at Basso, the boisterous and continuously packed gastropub burrowed below The Restaurant at The Cheshire. An upscale, casual spot where the flames of wall-mounted gas lamps crackle and illuminate an Old World charm, Basso is best enjoyed as a late-evening drinking and dining spot.

Full disclosure: Things did not start out well for me and Basso. It’s easy to hold a grudge against a joint where first impressions include a hostess who can’t find your reservations and then proceeds to shuffle your party around a waiting area for over an hour and a half between various frazzled (and genuinely apologetic) wait staff; and then, after finally being seated, receiving what could best be called an average meal (hardly anything worth a wait). This is a bitter pill to swallow, but in hindsight, it was one I ordered by booking a table at a freshly minted restaurant yet to be properly broken in. Sufficient time having passed, I decided to descend the winding staircase and give Basso another chance. I’m happy I did. The first thing I learned: Don’t bother with a reservation; don’t even bother going during dinner hours. Wait until after 9 p.m. This is your best bet for great service and an outstanding late-evening meal.

From 7 p.m. till close on weekend nights, Basso hosts a subterranean melee. Patrons – well-heeled young professional types in small groups – are mostly shoulder-to-shoulder at Basso’s rectangular main bar, where they vie for space, check each other out, toss their hair, flirt across the room, feed their texting obsessions and occasionally motion for the attention of a bartender. Basso very well might have a sound system, but the din of conversation during the weekend cancels out all other noise. Certainly, Basso is not lacking in style. The atmosphere is that of a dark, rustic wine cellar. The space is touched off by the glow of a blazing fireplace and a handful of lamps that reveal sleek, wooden, high-top tables between the enormous zinc-topped bar and leather booths that encircle the underground space. Much like The Restaurant bar upstairs and the Fox and Hounds Tavern next door, Basso embraces the Old World style with a modern twist (and does so without being obvious or cheesy).

Basso’s attempts behind the bar to put modern spins on classic drinks are not nearly as successful as the ambiance. Two of the worst offenses are the New Fashioned and the Sicilian Sling, neither of which is well-served by Basso’s overly sweetened reinvention unless, of course, chilled apple cider with a hint of bourbon is your ideal beverage of choice to wind down with. There’s a reason Italy is not famous for its cocktail innovation: It has none. Thankfully, Basso’s enormous bar is otherwise extremely well-stocked and well-maintained by a staff that works on its toes. Off-the-menu cocktails are prepped quickly and with the proper care. (I immediately washed the disappointing New Fashioned down with a superb Old Fashioned.) I was also impressed with the draft selection, which includes massive Pilsner glasses frothing over with cold Peroni, random Italian beer selections such as Il Chiostro Singel Absinthea and Chocarrubica, and a hefty list of other European and local craft beers on draft – about 32 in total. The wine list is more than adequate, though I wasn’t overly impressed with the by-the-glass selections, which hover at a little too pricy on the taste-to-value ratio.

That said, I was happy with an $8 glass of full-bodied Masi Modello Rosso, which paired well with a starter of Lobster Arancini – presented hot and flavorful on thick dollops of rich tarragon aioli. Pizzas are enjoyable (though a bit soggy in the middle), but the real attraction when it comes to substantial fare is the pasta, deliciously simple comfort plates made in-house and served in half and whole portions. A standout is the Mafalda, a bowl of wide noodles tossed in a savory ragù of beef and pork – a dish so good, it made me cringe to think of anyone even considering a sprinkle of Parmesan. As I finished the last bite well after 10 o’clock, I was still surrounded by a solid drinking crowd eager to press on. The noise in this place, still heavy, isn’t likely to go down anytime soon.