Columbus, Ohio USA
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Basi Itali at 10 Years
A beautiful, crazy ride
By Karen Edwards
November/December 2013 Issue

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Basi Italia owners, Johnny and Trish. Photo © Larry Hamill

Listen. I’ve found a great place to eat, a neighborhood joint. No one knows about it, it’s my secret discovery. I think you’ll like it. Walk with me.

Walk with me down High Street with its stop-and-go traffic, past new condos still smelling of sawdust, past glitzy shops and solid businesses. Here, at the corner of Buttles and High, not far from Short North stalwarts On Paper and Posh Pets, turn onto Buttles and walk with me past stately Victorian homes. This is Victorian Village. The atmosphere is different here from the High Street corridor. Feel it? It’s a sense of residence and family and community – a shared togetherness. Walk with me past Goodale Park, sprawled like a tiny expanse of country dropped onto the concrete streets of the city. It’s just a short way now. Walk with me past Hunter, close to the point where Buttles joins the no-nonsense stretch of Neil Avenue. There, on Highland Street. Do you see it? It’s just a short walk now to 811 Highland. See it? That tiny green, nondescript building with the awning and the red and green sign that proudly proclaims in Courier script, “basi Italia.” We’re here.

Basi Italia has been a Victorian Village fixture for 10 years – yet for everyone who has stepped through Basi’s door over those 10 years, there’s a feeling that they’ve made a personal, private discovery, a sense that the place exists just for them. And maybe it does.

For John Dornback, chef and co-owner of Basi Italia along with his wife Trish
Gentile, Columbus and the Short North was not even on the radar screen. As a youth, growing up as part of a large family in Cleveland, Dornback was sure of one thing: He was not going into the family business – a successful hardware-turned-manufacturing enterprise his grandfather had started in 1907. “My father told me there were already too many family members in the business,” Dornback recalls with a laugh. And there were – 30 various brothers, uncles, cousins and other relatives. But his father’s pronouncement wasn’t of much concern to the teenage Dornback. By that time, he had started to work after school in restaurants and found he liked the work. “I liked being the master of that universe, of getting out whatever I put into it,” he says. “I saw the harder you worked, the more successful you could be.” It also didn’t hurt that he was learning a skill no one else in the family had acquired. “They were surprised I wanted to be a chef,” Dornback says. “But they knew I was serious and they supported me.

Following his graduation from high school, Dornback went to New York to study at the French Culinary Institute. After that training, he could be found around New York, cooking at some of the best restaurants in the city. He’d return to Ohio periodically, though, to visit friends and family. It was on one of those trips that he met a child and adolescent psychiatrist, Trish Gentile, who had been living in Indianapolis prior to her recruitment by Columbus' Buckeye Ranch.

“We hit it off,” says Gentile.

“I told her if she was ever in New York to give me a call,” says Dornback.

But he never dreamed she would. It’s just one of those things you say in the moment.

“She came to New York and she called me,” says Dornback, who even now sounds a little surprised by the whole thing.

They fell in love and by the turn of the millennium, Dornback had moved to Columbus to be with Gentile. The two were married, and soon after, the search began to find a piece of property that would house the restaurant Dornback wanted to open.

The pair lived in the Short North area – in Italian Village (a later move was to a house just four blocks from their original home) – and they never really considered opening a restaurant anywhere else.

Soon, they found the perfect place – a roomy space right on High Street where Dagwoods had once been. Dornback’s plan was to open a place with a diner feel – someplace that would serve easy, good food for lunch and dinner and on Sundays.

Unfortunately for Dornback, that deal fell through. Despite his disappointment, he pushed on, walking the area, looking for the next right space.

“I heard there was a little pizza shop close to the park (Goodale Park) and the owner was looking to sell,” Dornback recalls.

He went to the shop, actually a little hole-in-the-wall on Highland, “It took me a day or two to find it,” Dornback says now – and he asked the owner if the stories were true. “Are you selling the place?”

“The owner didn’t know me, so he was a little guarded at first," Dornback says. But as the two chatted, the owner warmed up. “We talked on Sunday and by Wednesday, I’d signed a contract on the place,” Dornback says.

But this little place could never be a diner. Dornback began to consider one of the “millions” of restaurant concepts he’d envisioned ever since he knew he wanted his own restaurant. “In this business, it’s always good to have three or four ideas in your pocket,” he says.

Eventually, Dornback settled on the idea of an up-scale pizzeria, a sort of homage to what had existed in the space previously – but his restaurant would offer more than just pizzas. Dornback knew he’d offer Italian food as well.

“My background is German, I studied French cooking but my wife’s Italian, and it’s the kind of food I like to cook,” Dornback says. His kitchen philosophy is consistent with that of generations of Italian cooks: “Find the best ingredients, cook them simply and let them shine.”

“At the time,” Gentile says, “there was no privately owned Italian restaurant in the Short North. Dornback’s new neighborhood joint, an upscale eatery, would be the first.

Almost as soon as he moved into the space, Dornback and a friend gutted it completely and built the place into Basi Italia.

Walk with me through Basi’s front door. You’re home – in a place not unlike your own living or dining room but as it would look with tables set up for extra guests. Rather than feeling cramped by the closeness of your neighboring diner, however, it’s as though you’ve been seated next to distant cousins and you can’t wait to learn more about them – or what they’re eating.

“We entertained at home prior to opening Basi,” says Gentile. “We’d have all our friends over.” Now, you’re part of that happy gathering as you take a seat at a nearby table. You’re one of the Dornbacks’ friends – you’re part of the Basi family. The closeness of the room encourages that sense of intimacy, inclusiveness and interaction.

“You get to see what everyone else is having to eat and you say, ‘Oh, what’s that?’” says Mary Martineau, who considers herself a Basi semi-regular. Martineau, the executive director of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association, will tell you she became a friend of Gentile and Dornback when she was serving as executive director of the Short North Business Association. “I went to welcome them to the community and we hit it off,” she says, adding with a laugh, “They have scooters, too.” But it’s the food that brings Martineau back to Basi again and again. “The food is amazing.”

Seated at a white-covered table, before you can focus on your neighbor’s plate, you’ll be teased by the aromas wafting from the kitchen. The holy triumvirate of Italian gastronomy makes its presence felt first – garlic, basil and oregano. Then comes the juicy smell of roasting meat. Listen closely and you’ll hear the spatter of hot oil as vegetables, fresh as a Tuscan morning, hit the pan for a quick, light sauté.

“The zucchini appetizer (Zucchini Pronto) we serve is one of our most popular menu items,” says Gentile. Back in the kitchen, Dornback sautés the zucchini, then adds almonds, seasoning and Pecorina cheese. It’s one of those classic Basi dishes that allow the ingredients to shine on their own.

“I like the Rigatoni Salumeria,” says Martineau. That dish has family ties, says Dornback. “I took my mother-in-law’s recipe for Italian meatballs and made it into a ragout,” he says. Order it and you’ll be served the chunky rigatoni noodles draped with a sauce made from sweet sausage and tomato but then punched up with raisins, pine nuts and the slightly anise flavor of fennel. “Of course,” Martineau adds, “I’m a sucker for anything made with lamb.” Dornback easily tempts lamb lovers with a lamb Bolognese – rich and meaty and served over broad pappardelle noodles and topped with whipped ricotta.

Trish Gentile says she’s partial to eggplant Parmesan, that traditional Italian dish that makes a vegetarian lifestyle seem, at least for the moment, like a good idea. Now, this isn’t a pizza parlor eggplant Parmesan, made with a generic tomato sauce and covered with an impenetrable brick of mozzarella cheese. Basi’s eggplant Parmesan uses fresh pan-roasted eggplant, bathed in homemade tomato sauce and topped with fresh (not commercial-grade) mozzarella. Dornback agrees it’s one of those dishes, like zucchini pronto and the mustard-crusted golden trout served in a smoky tomato stock (a favorite of general manager Caitlin Lahr) that are unlikely to leave the Basi menu anytime soon. “He did drop the eggplant off the menu once,” says Gentile. “That lasted about a day.”

The Basi kitchen is small. There’s no room to stockpile ingredients, so food destined for recipes is bought fresh frequently – the way food is supposed to be bought. Local vendors, most located at the North Market, provide many an ingredient for a Basi dish. “We also change our vegetables seasonally,” says Dornback. Again, that’s the way vegetables and fruits are meant to be consumed.

Then, of course, there are the weekly specials where Dornback breaks out his creative genius. It’s sanity in the kitchen. After 10 years of fixing the same dishes night after night, the specials offer Dornback (don’t forget, a classically trained chef) a measure of relief as well as good, creative fun. Dornback is reluctant to name his own favorite menu item (as a parent, would you name your favorite child?), but his wife doesn’t have the same hesitation. “He would probably prefer one of his specials,” she says, “because that’s where he has an opportunity to be creative.”

When you operate a restaurant in a community as tightly knit as Victorian Village – and you live in a neighborhood as buoyantly active as Italian Village, you’re going to become an active member of the community. Both Gentile and Dornback have taken roles in everything from the Friends of Goodale Park to the Humane Society.

“If you’re doing an event in the area and you need something to do with food, they’re there,” says Martineau, recalling North Market cooking classes, Apron Galas, and private dinner functions with Dornback (who has been a board member of the North Market for years.)

“Whenever he’s asked to do a favor for the community, he responds without hesitation,” Martineau says. “He’s even fed the volunteers at ComFest.”

All of this while running the tiny Basi Italia restaurant in Victorian Village.

The third ingredient to a restaurant’s success – behind food and atmosphere – is the staff who greet and serve and make guests feel like, well, guests.

“We don’t have much turnover with regard to staff,” Dornback says. “Our staff has become family.”

Caitlin Lahr, Basi’s general manager, has been with the restaurant for 10 years, working her way up from busing tables because, when she arrived, she wasn’t old enough to wait tables. “It was supposed to be a way to get me through college,” Lahr says. But even after graduating with an English degree, she remained at Basi. She’s not sure she’d be lingering at any other job – or restaurant – that long.

“I can’t imagine working for two more dedicated people who are so fun to work for,” she says. “They respect their employees. They go out of their way to make us feel comfortable, but they push us, too, in a way that helps the staff deliver their best each day.”

The crowd that eats at Basi Italia – the people who linger on the back patio on warm, Indian summer nights and at tables when the air turns cool, are a diverse lot, reflecting the area. There are young and old, gay and straight, black and white, locals and tourists from nearby suburbs as well as out-of-state. All are navigating through the experience that is Basi Italia.

“If you’ve not been here before, it can be disorienting,” says Lahr. “People think they’ve wandered into somebody’s living room.”

In a sense, they have. They’ve wandered into the world of Trish and Johnny D, whose advice to customers couldn’t be simpler: “Just give in to it and let us take care of you.” Because, when you’re there, when you’re at Basi Italia, you’re like family. And Basi Italia is, if nothing else, an outward expression of both Dornback and Gentile.

“The way they met and Basi came to be, it’s like a love story,” says Lahr.

For Dornback, it’s the personification of a dream he held as a teen, a dream that carried him to New York, to Trish, to the creative magic that is the Short North.

“We were able to do it our way,” Dornback says. It’s why Basi’s has remained small. It’s why it’s located where it is, off the beaten path, away from the stop-and-go traffic of High Street. “We stayed true to ourselves,” he says.

Dornback brings up the restaurant in the old Jimmy Stewart classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (if you’ve never seen it, trust us, you will now that the holidays are approaching). “When the town was happy, everyone was sitting at Martini’s Restaurant with big smiles on their faces. That’s what I think of when I think of Basi,” he says. “Everyone has big smiles on their faces.”

No doubt, there will be smiling faces there for at least another decade, for Dornback and Gentile (or even Lahr for that matter) have no thoughts of leaving Basi Italia anytime soon.

“It’s been a beautiful, crazy ride,” says Lahr.


So, a year from now, five years from now, even ten years on, it may be entirely possible that, one day, you’ll hear a friend – or maybe a family member or work colleague or teammate whisper, “Listen. I’ve found a great place to eat, a neighborhood joint. No one knows about it, it’s my secret discovery. I think you’ll like it.

Walk with me.”


© 2013 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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