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Sweet Basil in Needham: The Perfect BYOB Neighborhood Italian Bistro

Saturday, December 28, 2013

It's not much to look at from the street, and probably why I drove by Sweet Basil many times without thinking of going in. But a couple of months ago we joined friends there for dinner. And since then I've become obsessed with the place. Sweet Basil - an Italian Bistro in Needham, Massachusetts - is the perfect neighborhood BYOB bistro.

If there's one thing I can fault my friends who recommended it for, it's that they didn't endorse it enthusiastically enough. Perhaps they didn't want to be held responsible if it disappointed. After dining there twice and ordering takeout a couple times I'm here to urge you:

Stop whatever you're doing right now and make plans to eat there soon. You won't regret it.

In perusing their menu it's a little hard to classify this simply as "Italian" (as if there is such a thing given the diversity of the cuisine in Italy). Compared to Comella's (another Boston-area takeout restaurant with multiple locations) the menu at Sweet Basil is more diverse and more adventurous.

Whereas Comella's sticks to staples like Parmigiana, Scampi, and Alfredo, Sweet Basil has a couple of standard favorites on the menu (like Chicken Parm and Shrimp Scampi) but takes it mostly in other directions with dishes like Bolognese with beef, sausage and mushrooms over pappardelle ($21.50), Lamb shank slow cooked with polenta and roasted vegetables ($26), and Seafood fra diavolo with shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari, and cod in a spicy tomato brodo over linguini ($22), and Braised chicken with port wine, balsamic glazed peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms tossed with strozzapreti ($20).

When you visit, you'll likely see chef owner David Becker overseeing execution from the front of the restaurant he took over in 2000 from chef Paul Booras. I stopped in to pick up takeout the other night and purchased one of his cookbooks (Thrown out of an Italian Kitchen: Recipes from Sweet Basil) and asked him what they do to extract such pure depth of flavor in their dishes. He said it was all about balancing salt, acid, fat and sweetness. And "not being afraid to burn stuff."

In perusing the recipes in his cookbook it's clear simplicity is a focus, but it's unclear whether following the recipes will achieve similar results to what they deliver. I asked him about this last night when we were dining in and he said that not everybody's kitchen is the same. Even a frozen pizza cooks differently in different ovens. He said he's not keeping any secrets and it's all there in the book. He even encourages guests to try recipes at home and bring a taste in for suggestions for improvement.

Tips
  • They don't take reservations so get there early especially on weekend nights
  • They're BYOB-friendly with $5 corkage and they know how to serve wine - can't beat that
  • Portions are huge so order lots of things to share
  • No dessert or coffee so consider making plans after for another stop
  • Bulk takeout seems pricey but with its fresh ingredients and massive portions (it says it serves 5 but easily serves a family of 4 two and a half times over) it's a value
Favorite Dishes
  • The Bolognese is amazing with its satisfying, flavorful sauce and housemade pappardelle
  • The seasonal Risotto is tremendous - fresh and delicious
  • The Lamb Shank (osso bucco-style) over Polenta offers an amazing depth and range of flavors
  • The Chicken Parm is solid if you're looking for a comfort food comparison point
Conclusion

If you live in the Boston area, do yourself a favor and get over to Sweet Basil as soon as possible. With it's BYOB-friendly policy, utterly delicious food, and warm neighborhood atmosphere it has quickly become one of my favorite restaurants in the country.

5 out of 5 Stars WWP: Bistro perfection

Check 'em out:
Sweet Basil
http://www.sweetbasilneedham.com
942 Great Plain Avenue
Needham, MA 02492
781-444-9600

Related Reading:
There have been rumors Sweet Basil would open a second location in Wellesley. While it's not a long drive to Needham, I would love to see more dining options in town. What's up with Needham having more good restaurants than Wellesley?

Question of the Day: Have you ever been to Sweet Basil? If so, what are some of your favorite dishes?

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