To enter Basso you descend a broad, curving stairwell into a cavernous basement. Gas lamps flicker along the wall, casting long, dancing shadows on the diners seated in the booths beneath them. Is it 1897? No. The massive bar at the center of the dining room is a wholly modern creation, with sleek liquor bottles and a distinctive tap handle for each craft beer on draft. Above the bar flat-screen monitors broadcast ESPN and the MLB Network.
On the other side of the room, past a few tables for larger groups, is the open kitchen, and here again you seem to have stepped into the past. There is a wood-burning pizza oven, a rotisserie spit. You glance at the menu. A $14 burger. A kale salad. Pizzas with goofy names like "McDowell's Golden Arcs," "Stretch Armstrong" and "Emo Cover Band."
Basso opened in December as part of Lodging Hospitality Management's multimillion-dollar renovation of the Cheshire hotel complex. The name is Italian for low, and Basso occupies the basement of the hotel's flagship venture, the Restaurant at the Cheshire. (For my thoughts on that restaurant, see "A Tudor Coup?" March 21, 2013.) Though Basso is, by design, neither as expensive nor as glitzy as the Restaurant, it is not a lesser sibling. To run the kitchen, Lodging Hospitality Management brought in Patrick Connolly, a St. Louis native who had left town to make his name as a chef in Boston, where he won the James Beard Foundation's award for "Best Chef: Northeast," and then New York City.
Connolly has crafted a menu best described as Italian gastropub. While that might sound like a concept spat out by the Restaurant Trend Generator 3000, in practice it means a selection dominated by rustic pastas and wood-fired pizzas, both of which are always in vogue.
The pizzas hew close to the Neapolitan style. The crust isn't quite as thin and delicate as a true Neapolitan pie, nor does the oven burn hot enough to blister the underside black. On their own merits, however, these are excellent pizzas. The crust has a light, pleasant flavor, and the topping combinations are more than just an excuse for a clever name.
Slideshow: Inside Basso at the Cheshire Inn
The "Hero" mimics a classic Italian-American sub (or hoagie or grinder, depending on your provenance): thin slices of soppressata and coppa with provolone cheese and peperoncini over tomato sauce. The earthy spice of the two cured meats provides the pizza's main flavor, while the peperoncini, each slice reduced to a translucent ghost of itself speckled with seeds, adds a sharp, lingering kick. Gently curved slices of golden-orange delicata squash arch across the surface of the "McDowell's Golden Arcs" pizza. Draped alongside them are thin slices of speck crisped like bacon. With Fontina cheese, sage and even a touch of honey, the pizza offers a lovely balance of sweet and savory, spice and grass. Quite simply, a gorgeous dish.
Housemade pastas include mafalda: thin, ridged ribbons like skinny lasagna noodles. Connolly tosses these in a rich ragù of beef and pork, adds pecorino romano for salt and tang, and then dusts the dish with breadcrumbs for textural contrast. The result is strikingly humble — it looks like nothing more than a big bowl of noodles — and delicious. Duck agnolotti is less successful. Connolly serves the stuffed pasta in a sauce (for lack of a better term) of olive oil, broccoli rabe, pecorino and pine nuts. These flavors work well together, especially the bitter bite of the broccoli rabe, but the agnolotti themselves are bland. The minced duck inside the pasta hardly tastes of duck, let alone any seasoning.
The menu offers four dishes from "The Grill." This includes the burger, a juicy specimen dressed up with Fontina, strips of fried onion and a mildly spicy giardiniera. (The veggie burger, available at lunch, is an excellent example of the species, with a texture and flavor that calls to mind fried eggplant.) Another "Grill" entrée, a fillet of red trout, is perfunctory. Salt, and too much of it, is the primary seasoning. A side of mustard greens with farro and a few slices of poached pear adds little to the trout; as prepared, none of the individual flavors is strong enough to make the combination interesting. À la carte vegetable sides are a better choice, especially the roasted cauliflower with gremolata and whipped ricotta.
Appetizers include gastropub standards — the charcuterie board, for instance, and the cheese plate. I opted instead for three slices of toast topped with eggplant caponata, gently sweet and just barely still astringent. A shockingly and wonderfully light tonnato sauce and slivers of toasted rye bread distinguish a "Caesar" salad of arugula and kale. The crisp exterior of the fried calamari yield to tender squid, a simple pleasure from a simple dish.
As befits a gastropub, the selection of craft beers on draft and by the bottle is excellent. The wine list favors Italian selections, from affordable Chianti Classico to pricey Super Tuscans. When the restaurant is busy, especially on weekend evenings, service (especially ordering and receiving another round of drinks) often slows to a crawl.
On some (but not all) of my visits, the server introduced the menu as dishes meant to be shared. The menu doesn't really scan this way, though. You can share appetizers or a pizza easily enough, but passing a bowl of pasta or an entrée back and forth is clumsy. Actually, I think Connolly could push this idea of shared plates further. I'd much rather try a succession of his rustic pastas or some smaller, more playful dishes than one more version (albeit a solid one) of the pub burger.
Basso's greatest asset is its chef — the only one in St. Louis who currently holds one of the culinary world's most prestigious honors. The restaurant should do us all a favor and unleash him. After all, we've already gone underground. Why not even farther off the grid?
Slideshow: Inside Basso at the Cheshire Inn