It’s out of your way to come to Basil – I’ll just put that out there right now.
It’s in between Reinholds and Sinking Spring, just a few turns off the Gouglersville exit on Route 222 and a bit in the middle of nowhere. But your 30-minute drive is nothing compared to the journey of the man who created Basil, coming all the way from Italy to make delicious Italian dinners that are completely worth the trip.
Chef Gianluca Longo had the classic great-chef start as a dishwasher at the age of 11 in his hometown of Catanzaro, Italy.
“As a child, the best time in my house was meal time – the time when we all got together and ate and talked,” says Longo. “I figured if I worked at a restaurant, I could do more at home to help Mom make dinner – even if that meant help her washing the dishes.”
Longo worked his way into culinary school and eventually a job at a restaurant owned by Giorgio Armani in Milan.
“Of course, I always wanted to come to America. But I didn’t give it much thought, as I did not see a path to get me here,” explains Longo. “One day, while working in Rome, I got a phone call from a restaurant in the U.S. that was interested in me, asking if I would be willing to come for an internship of sorts. I naturally said yes.”
In Miami, he worked in a restaurant owned by Robert De Niro. He says De Niro was not cooking next to him every night, but when he did come to visit the kitchen, he was always very friendly.
Longo met his wife in Miami, and the marriage brought him to Pennsylvania, where we here in Lancaster County (okay, technically Berks County) get to benefit from the skills of the celebrity chef.
Word has been spreading about Longo’s cooking. Basil opened in May as just a small room with only 11 tables. Now, in winter, there are notes on both the restaurant’s Facebook page and its front door asking customers to be patient with long wait times. But a much larger dining room is being added and will offer a bar as well as vastly reduced wait times.
“The room will also offer some nice touches that have yet to be seen anywhere in this area,” promises Longo.
In the meantime, though, people keep coming for food impressive enough to wait for. I’m glad Longo didn’t wait until he had an ideal restaurant setup to start serving his delicious dishes.
I ate at Basil on a weeknight, successfully dodging a long wait. I started with the antipasto Italiano appetizer, which is essentially a variant of a charcuterie board that comes in at $7 while most charcuterie usually hits $12 to $15. But Basil’s antipasto Italiano is just as pleasing as its more expensive brethren and is plenty large in portion, easily shared among three people. The spicy soppressata was my favorite, which I learned the hard way is better in small bites – not an entire slice in your mouth at once.
I also placed an order at the last minute for a personal pizza as an appetizer, knowing we couldn’t pass up trying pizza at a pizzeria. With 15 pizzas to choose from, I went with the one I’d never heard of – upside-down pizza. It had the caption, “You might be surprised” on the menu.
The crust was very tender and flaky. My dining companions agreed that it was the best pizza crust they’d had in a while.
Personally, I was charmed by another aspect of the pizza. If you Google “upside down pizza,” you mostly get baked casserole-type results. But Longo’s is pizza with its two essential toppings reversed: cheese first, sauce second. The genius of upside-down pizza is that the cheese doesn’t constantly pull off in large chunks when you take bites. The reason is that the cheese, as the first layer, melds with the bread. A little detail like that made this pizza a pleasure instead of a battle to eat, so the slices went fast.
After the assorted tastes of our appetizers – including some bacon-and-cream-cheese-stuffed mushrooms recommended by our waitress – our entrees were almost overwhelming. They consisted of large portions covered in sauces – a departure from the nibbly diversity of the appetizers. The sauces themselves were very rich and multiflavored. I suggest either bracing yourself for a huge meal, or do what we didn’t – lighten up on the appetizers.
My veal piccata limone consisted of a large, thin slice of veal with a lemon sauce and capers.
“Lemons or capers on their own are rather strong,” Longo says. “But combine the two properly, and they take on a well-balanced third flavor – a marriage, if you will. Marrying flavors like this in order to complement instead of compete is the part of cooking I take most seriously.”
One of my companions tried the spinach ravioli, which features made-from-scratch ravioli amply stuffed with fresh ricotta and herbs and doused in a peeled tomato sauce.
“Of course, I also have a final secret touch that finishes it off, as I do with all my dishes,” says Longo.
My other companion’s Venetian chicken was my favorite of the bunch, with its melted mozzarella topping and mild but tasty side of homemade tagliatelle pasta, which is Longo’s specialty pasta.
Indeed, one of the great things about Basil is the fresh and homemade aspect of so many of the ingredients and items.
“I make as much as I can from scratch, which is most of the menu,” says Longo. This extends to the desserts, too. Longo made a point while in Italy to learn the art of pastries – not just main dishes. At Basil, he bakes sponge cakes the night before, then comes in the next morning before anyone else to work his magic.
“I set up all my creams and cake toppings, and then I just let inspiration take hold,” Longo says. “I never know exactly what I am going to make until I have finished making it. It’s like meditation for me.”
There’s no reason to believe the takeout pizzeria menu isn’t just as strong as the restaurant menu. The upside-down pizza we tried was just one item from one category of that menu, all of which is available for delivery. There are classic hot and cold Italian subs, chicken wings, burgers, cheesesteaks, salads, strombolis and calzones, and a selection of finger-food appetizers like mozzarella sticks and french fries.
It goes to show that even as a brilliant chef with a past as star-studded as his, Longo is down-to-earth enough to offer up grub appropriate for any occasion.
“Now that the kitchen is mine, I prepare dishes how I see fit – dishes that I would eat at home on a Sunday or be proud to serve to my mother,” says Longo.
So make it an occasion to drive up to Basil and taste his creations for yourself.
• 776 Fritztown Road, Sinking Spring
• (484) 509-2066
• Daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.