Friday, November 13, 2009

Sweet Basil, Needham

Sweet Basil in Needham is probably one of the most common responses to the question, "What is a great place to eat in the suburbs?" And, in fact, when we were recently choosing a restaurant for my in-laws 50th wedding anniversary (!), over and over, people responded, "Sweet Basil." I had only been there once, 4 years ago. What I remembered was, yes, good food, but also long, long lines as they don't take reservations. And, when you are paying a babysitter, long lines can mean extra cost. Since that time, Sweet Basil doubled in size. But we also got enough tips to figure out how to navigate the wait. Finally, my mom was our wonderful (and free!) babysitter.

We arrived at 5:30 and had no wait at all. We were instantly taken by the kindness of chef and owner, Dave Becker and hostess/girlfriend/photographer, Nina Gallant.
We also were charmed by the little details of the restaurant: the little metal bucket that held the champagne we bought for the occassion (it is BYOB), the occassionally chipped plates, the open kitchen and flowers that were set up around the room.

We were immediately served the wonderful bread and scoop of homemade pesto while Nina helped direct us towards some delicious starters. Nina generously gave us a sample of the fried calamari. They were crisp and light, and the spicy marinara was so good that my father-in-law ate it up with the bread.
The wontons filled with shitakes and avocado were also tasty and set on a bed of salad and served with pineapple salsa.
However, my favorite was the filo wrapped gouda. The gouda oozed out of the crisp sheets, and onto the bread underneath. The dressing, made of balsamic vinegar and truffle oil, added an earthy taste.
Dried apricots and fresh strawberries put another layer of sweetness, without being cloying. Each of these appetizers, priced under $10.00 could easily be a light main dish.

A few points about the main dishes: the portions are enormous and can easily feed two people or one person for two meals. The titles are also deceptive in that a seemingly simple dish is often more complex. Take the homemade cheese ravioli with marinara.
One taste of the sauce made it clear that it was unique. And, in fact, Nina explained that before each portion is served, the chef toasts garlic that is then added to the marinara, along with ample amounts of fresh parsley and basil. These touches are what make this place so good.

My in-laws loved their veal marsala, noting that it was tender and flavorful.
The sauce is made with both marsala wine, port and dried fruit for balance and sweetness. The generous portion was served with pasta on the side.

My seafood stew was delicious. The sauce created from saffron and fennel.

It is normally served with potatoes, but I asked for fresh pasta instead. If you are so lucky, I highly recommend this as the pasta was not only delicious, but was a perfect foil for the sauce.

Sweet Basil doesn't offer desserts. The reality is that you will most likely be too full. But if you still have room, you can head to Abbott's Frozen Custard right next door or gelato down the street.

A few last points. If you do end up waiting in line, it is a congenial atmosphere and you might be lucky enough to be handed a few appetizers by Dave Becker himself. If you enjoy the food enough, you can also purchase the Sweet Basil cookbook (with photographs by Nina Gallant). Finally, and perhaps most importantly-bring cash and, if you are so inclined, drinks. There is a 5.00 fee for the bottle, which still is substantially less than other places.

Sweet Basil, 942 Great Plain Ave, Needham, 781-444-9600


  1. I have say, I completely agree with this review. Sweet Basil is one of the best Italian restaurants I've ever been to anywhere. We just took our mother here for a birthday dinner. Food is excellent and in large portions and also very reasonably priced. I also highly recommend the lamb shank osso bucco, it's the best I've ever had anywhere.

  2. Sweet Basil is such a great restaurant. The prices are reasonable, the portions are huge, and the food is consistently great. I can't say enough good things about this place. If you're going though make sure to bring cash as they don't take cards.

  3. BEST,BEST italian restaurant... Dave Becker and his entire staff are wonderful!