Basso Café exudes an easy intimacy that comes with a chef-owned restaurant whose reassuring presence is felt both in and out of the kitchen. Chef Renato Donzelli has built a loyal following of customers at his Norwalk restaurant who come for both his creative Italian-meets-South American dishes, as well as his charming hospitality and boundless energy. And now, they are coming for a newly added bar menu and cocktail list.
During a recent renovation, Basso Café invested in a new bar area with seating for about twelve, and a special menu of cocktails and snacks, thanks to a hard-won liquor license after eight years in business. Although you can still BYOB, Chef Donzelli has crafted a happy hour menu that can be enjoyed Tuesday through Friday from 4 to 6 pm, as well as a mini happy hour from 11 to 12 noon each day for lunch.
A self-described “hot blooded Italian” who grew up in Venezuela, Donzelli focuses his creative energy on a menu that blurs the lines between dishes from those two countries, creating his own unique cuisine. “I start from the back,” is how Chef Donzelli explains his approach to his menu. The new cocktail and wine list are meant to compliment the food, and long-time diners will be rewarded with a solid selection of shaken and stirred, classic and contemporary cocktails, as well as wine and beer.
On a chilly Wednesday night, I passed through the cozy dining room and headed straight for the bar, eager to pair a cocktail or two with snacks from the bar menu. With some recommendations from Jeff Hodson, Basso’s bartender, I started with their staple, a shrub style cocktail called the Basso Martini. The sweet and tart, yet slightly aromatic vodka-based drink combines layers of lemon, lemongrass, and simple syrup. My companion tried the Basso Old Fashioned, a Bulleit bourbon-based cocktail with cherry and orange bitters with Bitter Truth EXR– an Amaro herbal liqueur, which gave this classic cocktail an herbaceous and bitter edge. And finally, in place of dessert, we split a cocktail that can be found on the regular menu, the Boulevard des Reves. I recommend splitting this, or ordering your own along with an Uber, because this cocktail hails from an exceptionally boozy family of cocktails that also claims the Boulevardier and Negroni as close relatives. Made with bourbon, campari, sweet vermouth and rum, it’s a hypnotically strong drink.
As for eats, check out my colleague Jeff’s review a couple of months ago for a deeper dive on the full menu. I will note a few small plates we enjoyed and that I’d recommend: Melanzane Sott’olio is a grilled eggplant preserved with olive oil, balsamic, and served over toasted bread. The eggplant had a pleasant acidity and an unexpected, almost meaty texture. I predict the chorizo casserole – a small terrine of chickpeas, roasted red peppers and chorizo – will be my go-to order thanks to a bit of warm spice and perfectly chewy chickpeas. I admit to going off my own snack script and venturing over to the dinner menu to order a lamb ragu studded with peas and homemade pappardelle. Friends, I have zero regrets. It was an elegant yet hearty dish and perfect for a cold winter night.
Basso’s intimate new bar experience widens the net for those diners who may not want to commit to an entrée, but a small plate and cocktail will do just fine. In other words, Norwalk, your favorite cozy neighborhood restaurant just got that much better.