Anna Di Pierno's little charmer of a restaurant has been around for about seven years, operating under the name Pasta Blitz. If you go looking for it, though, look for Il Basilico.
Di Pierno has taken a deliberate approach to the name change, but the transition is almost complete. The neon sign above the restaurant, located in a Timonium strip mall, still carries the old name, but virtually everything inside is now emblazoned with the Il Basilico logo.
The menu has been changing gradually, too. The main part still consists of Italian-American favorites — lots of them — things like veal Parmigiana, homemade lasagna Bolognese and chicken cacciatore. But Di Pierno has steadily been introducing fare that you don't see everyday. Selected menu items now are tagged with a little chef's-cap logo, which means they fit Di Pierno's definition of "modern Italian cuisine" — slow, healthy cooking.
Other dishes start out as specials, or as Restaurant Week offerings. Il Basilico's Restaurant Week lineup included gnocchi with a pesto of pistachio and bacon, "sea-aroma" risotto with pears and Gulf shrimp, marinated zucchini and steamed tuna.
Not all of these dishes were still around when we visited, but the gnocchi and the risotto had made their way onto the regular menu, and a new list of specials featured fare like butternut squash lasagna, tilapia lasagna and bracioline alla Napoletana, the kind of Old World dish you'd go looking for in the beloved Italian restaurants throughout the outer boroughs of New York City.
Il Basilica reminded my friend of those places, which are seldom very fancy and never pretentious. They're intended for families and couples looking for an affordable night out.
A big parking lot helps, as does a BYOB policy, which many diners took advantage of on a recent Saturday night. The interior has been brightened up with warm Tuscan hues and colorful photo murals depicting Italian scenes. But it's still the kind of place where you feel comfortable coming as you are or dressing up for without feeling conspicuous.
Most entrees are less than $20, and the portions are generous but not ridiculously so. It doesn't feel like fine dining at Il Basilico, but it's not a meatball factory, either. The food, especially the specials, feels like the work of an invested chef who takes care to present her creations with precision and a bit of style.
The best dishes, like the fettuccine Napoli, the gnocchi Christina and a veal saltimbocca, are simple in concept and diligent in execution.
We loved the dance of flavors and textures in the fettuccine dish, our favorite, a heaping bowlful of al dente pasta, freshly tossed with firm calamari, tomato and artichokes in a surprisingly peppery white wine sauce. We're used to seeing pistachio as a flavor in Italian desserts but seldom as a flavoring in a savory dish. Gnocchi in a pistachio-bacon pesto sounds as though it would be sharp and assertive, but it was actually enjoyably mellow and subtle.
Di Pierno's faithful version of the classic veal saltimbocca, another special item that may become a regular one, was good evidence that the kitchen handles the basics well. The meat was pounded flat, breaded nicely and fried perfectly. The dish's sage seasoning was spot on.
Appetizers were a little underwhelming. The best of them was fried calamari, which came with a splendid marinara sauce but was otherwise a little bland. I was curious about Il Basilico's arincini, which were filled with ground beef, peas and basil instead of the typical street-fair version with rice and cheese. I wish it had been served hotter, though, and that the filling had had more seasoning. It, too, was bland.
Marinated in garlic, vinegar and mint, and served unbraided, the appetizer of marinated eggplant was one of the more unusual dishes I've seen lately. I liked it for this reason, but others at the table thought it was too tough and just a little weird. The butternut squash lasagna, too, sounded great in theory, but the squash itself needed more seasoning.
The staff at Il Basilico is cheerful and accommodating. We appreciated having our water glasses filled, but I'd have liked a cleaner table before dessert menus were offered.
There are desserts to save room for, like an indulgent chocolate tiramisu and pretty millefoglie, delicate rectangles layered with pastry cream and strawberries — think Napoleons.
It's time for Il Basilico to put Pasta Blitz in the past. There's a very special restaurant waiting to blossom.
Il Basilico Trattoria Italiana
Where: 49 W. Aylesbury Road, Timonium
Contact: 410-453-6603, ilbasilicotrattoria.com
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers $2.50-$15; entrees $12.50-$21
Food: Traditional Italian-American fare
Service: Casual and eager to please
Best dishes: Gnocchi in fresh pistachio sauce, veal saltimbocca, fettuccine Napoli
Parking: Free parking on large lot
Children: Menu options for children ages 12 and younger
Noise level: Comfortable and neighborly
[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]